Concord Board of Ethics to probe two complaints further

Ward Five Councilor Stacey Brown speaks during budget talks.

Ward Five Councilor Stacey Brown speaks during budget talks. Catherine McLaughlin

By CATHERINE McLAUGHLIN

Monitor staff

Published: 06-24-2024 7:29 PM

Stacey Brown welcomes her upcoming public hearing with Concord’s Board of Ethics. As a city councilor married to a police officer, she thinks it could set the record straight on what’s actually a conflict of interest.

“I’m glad that there’s going to be a public hearing,” Brown said. “I think it will be great to talk out these questions.”

Brown, who represents Ward 5, said in an interview she felt a complaint about a vote she took was tied to a broader push by her political opponents to convince voters that she has too much baggage to serve effectively. An open discussion on when it is necessary to recuse herself — as compared to when others think she ought to — would be productive, she said.

“There is a narrative that was created during the campaign that I can’t serve my constituents, because I can’t vote on certain things,” said Brown, who fended off a challenger in a contentious re-election campaign last fall. It’s important to her, she continued, to vote in every case where she feels she can in order to disprove that narrative. These votes matter, she said “because I’m representing my constituents.”

The city’s Board of Ethics — its five appointed members, most of whom are lawyers, are joined by the city solicitor, an ex-officio member — dismissed all but two claims against city officials Monday, finding many of the complaints too vague. The board decided to move forward to public hearings on two issues: one portion of a mutli-part complaint against Brown and one complaint against the head of a city advisory committee. At preliminary meetings like this Monday’s, the board can dismiss complaints for a wide array of reasons but must do it unanimously. Otherwise, the issues move to a public hearing, after which the board has a number of potential actions.

In a complaint, resident Tyler Savage claimed Brown had violated council rules on a number of occasions, saying that “she ignored a conflict of interest regarding her husband’s position on the police force” and had a “clear disregard of rules, laws, and policies.”

The Board of Ethics dismissed the portions of the complaint against Brown that dealt with whether or not she had followed council rules requiring its members, when speaking at other city meetings, to make clear they speak in their “individual capacity as an interested citizen, and not on behalf or at the request of the council.” The meetings in question were either unspecified or occurred too far in the past to be fair to hear now, board members agreed. The board also dismissed an accusation that Brown had broken the state’s Right to Know law because, as a state provision, it wasn’t within the board’s purview. Alleged violations of that law can be brought to court or to the state’s new Right to Know Ombudsman.

One part of the complaint will move forward to a public hearing: Savage referenced a council meeting in which Brown refused to recuse herself from a vote accepting a report from the city manager that authorized a street closure for an event. The report also recommended a police detail. Several councilors and the mayor said they felt it was inappropriate for Brown to vote on the report because of the police detail. She disagreed and participated in a unanimous vote to accept it.

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It is largely up to councilors to decide whether or not they have a conflict of interest on city items, though the mayor or other councilors can raise the issue.

When asked in an interview about how she decides whether or not her husband’s employment — and therefore the benefits she receives as a family member — are a conflict, Brown described making a case-by-case determination about whether an item getting voted on directly involves her husband’s work, such as safety equipment purchases, or whether the council’s decision would mean her family gained financially.

She did not feel the vote at the May council meeting had a conflict because she would not benefit monetarily from the street closure or police detail.

“My husband doesn’t do details, typically,” she said. “This was a street closure: that was the focus.”

The ethics board will weigh that reasoning after hearing from Brown and others at a hearing, which is yet to be scheduled.

After workshopping changes for more than a year at the request of then-mayor Jim Bouley — who went on to endorse Brown’s opponent — the city council passed an update to its ethics ordinance in February 2023 that clarified the definition of conflict of interest. The addition included an explicit definition of how a conflict applied to an elected official with a family member employed by the city — a clarification with clear relevance to Brown, who joined the council in 2022.

The ethics board swiftly dismissed a complaint against Ward 8 Councilor Ali Sekou, citing the fact that it did not reference what Sekou was supposed to have done wrong or when.

In a response letter to the board, Sekou addressed what he saw the complaint as referencing: a recusal he made from a council vote about a housing development that had a legal dispute with his mosque. While he forgot to say the reason he withdrew from the vote during the meeting, Sekou emphasized that the reason he recused himself had previously been disclosed and reported on and was well known to the Council and the public.

“I don’t have anything to hide,” Sekou said Monday. “I just forgot.”

Like Brown, Sekou said he felt the complaint against him had been politically motivated — but he declined to get into specifics.

“There are people out there wanting to start fires for no reason,” he said. “I’m glad the ethics committee didn’t buy into the politics behind it.”

While the board dismissed the complaint because of its failure to identify any specific infraction, some members endorsed Sekou’s reasoning.

“As I read the code of ethics, a councilor recusing himself is required to make a disclosure prior to the recusal — but the rule doesn’t say that the disclosure has to be that day, that moment, that time,” said John Sullivan, a lawyer and past city councilor who chairs the board.

The same logic was applied when the board dismissed a complaint against Erle Pierce, a member of the Concord Planning Board.

Pierce wrote in a response letter to the board that, as a state lottery commissioner, he notifies the city in advance that he will withdraw from any planning board item that could “even have the appearance of a conflict” such as new casinos or gaming ordinances — which he did for the meeting referenced in a complaint against him. Pierce said he usually announces any conflicts at meetings, but he unintentionally did not do so at the March meeting. Because he had made the prior notice, though, the ethics board found he had made the necessary disclosure and promptly dismissed the complaint.

Another complaint — raising questions about the lines between professional expertise and professional conflict for citizens who serve on the city’s many committees — will also go to a hearing. More coverage to follow.

Catherine McLaughlin can be contacted at cmclaughlin@cmonitor.com.