Week in Review: February 23, 2014

With a Monday holiday (Presidents Day), school vacation week, a big snowstorm that cancelled Tuesday’s city council meeting, a series of smaller storms that made getting around each day a challenge, and a brilliantly sunny Saturday for Winterfest, politics was not foremost in the news this week.

The biggest political news was the revelation yesterday in a blog post by Chris Scott about the candidacy of George Ramirez for the office of Lowell City Manager that Ramirez’s brother-in-law, City Councilor John Leahy, will be able to participate in the selection of the city manager even if Ramirez is a candidate. (Ramirez is married to Leahy’s sister). Massachusetts General Laws chapter 268A is the state’s conflict of interest law. It governs both state and municipal employees. As a state employee myself, each year I am required to undergo mandatory ethics training and to take and pass a test. I confess that if that test asked “May a city councilor vote for his brother-in-law to be city manager?” I would have without hesitation answered NO. But my answer would have been incorrect. The proper answer is a lawyerly “it depends.”

Section 6 of chapter 268A prohibits a governmental employee from participating in a matter in which “his immediate family” has a financial interest. (This is not a trivial prohibition since a violation carries with it penalties of a fine of not more than $10,000 or by imprisonment of up to 5 years).

The next question is what constitutes “immediate family.” According to subparagraph (e) of section 1 of chapter 268A, immediate family means “the employee and his spouse, and their parents, children, brothers and sisters.” So while City Councilor Leahy could not vote for a brother-in-law who was a sibling of Leahy’s spouse, he could vote for a brother-in-law who is a spouse of Leahy’s sibling. Clear so far? I didn’t think so.

The law also has a requirement that for matters that create ethical questions but are not banned outright, the public official may properly participate in the matter provided he first submit in writing a full written disclosure of the relationship. Most of the cases reported on the website of the Massachusetts State Ethics Commission (all of which make for fascinating reading for anyone interested in this kind of stuff) involve management employees (such as a fire chief) submitting the written disclosure to a superior (such as a town manager). The superior then decides whether it is alright for the subordinate to participate in the process or whether someone else should handle it. I’m not sure how this works in the case of an elected official whose superiors are the voters.

Finally, it’s not clear from Chris Scott’s post whether the “Leahy can participate” conclusion is the official word from the State Ethics Commission or just a reasoned analysis of the statute. The conclusion seems like the correct one given the language of the statute but the “you can vote for some brothers-in-law but not others” result probably deserves an clear ruling directly from the commission.

Assuming that Leahy is able to participate, this puts him in a tough spot. While every councilor’s vote will be closely scrutinized, Leahy’s will be more than most. Scott’s blog post states “Leahy said there will be no favoritism if he participates” which is probably the case, but perception plays a big part of politics and this kind of thorny relationship is the fuel that powers conspiracy theories of all types. In the bigger picture, having all nine councilors able to participate in the vote does make it more likely that a new manager will be elected (less chance of a stalemate with 9 voting than with 8) and that the successful candidate be elected with more than just a bare majority of 5 votes. That’s all it takes but it would be nice if the new city manager was able to help unite the council right from the start.

As for George Ramirez, he first ran for the Lowell City Council in 2003 but finished eleventh. He ran again in 2005 and was elected, finishing ninth. Instead of running for re-election for another term, in the summer of 2007 he resigned from the council to become general counsel for the Massachusetts Office of Business Development (which earned him a story in the July 18, 2007 Boston Globe). Perhaps Ramirez’s most memorable accomplishment during that council term was his inclusion in the six councilor majority that urged then City Manager John Cox to resign which Cox did in April of 2006. For the record, those six councilors were Ramirez, former councilor Kevin Broderick, current State Senator Eileen Donoghue, current Mayor Rodney Elliott, and current city councilors Bill Martin and Jim Milinazzo. The three councilors who continued to back Cox that year were the late Armand Mercier, former councilor Bud Caulfield, and present councilor Rita Mercier.

In May of 2010, Ramirez left his state position to become the Executive Vice President of MassDevelopment, the agency that purchased most of Fort Devens when that installation closed in 1996. MassDevelopment is a quasi-public authority that was given the responsibility of transforming the former Army base into a residential and business community.

Here’s the biography of Ramirez from the MassDevelopment website:

George A. Ramirez – Executive Vice President, Devens Operations

As executive vice president of Devens operations, George Ramirez oversees the continued redevelopment of the former military base into an economic engine for north central Massachusetts. Mr. Ramirez brings nearly two decades of expertise to MassDevelopment. He worked most recently as deputy director and general counsel in the Massachusetts Executive Office of Housing and Economic Development, where he played a key role in managing six agencies and more than 80 fulltime employees. In that capacity, he facilitated state support for economic development, chaired the Economic Assistance Coordinating Council, served as a member of the Emerging Technology Fund Advisory Committee and coordinated the Governor’s Development Cabinet. In addition to his service as a member of the Lowell City Council, Mr. Ramirez has also run a private law practice for six years. A resident of Lowell, he holds a B.A. from UMass-Lowell and a J.D. from Suffolk University Law School, where he has served as a member of the Board of Trustees.

In other news, the coming council meeting will be a marathon one with all the items from last week’s agenda added to new matters. The net school spending shortfall first discussed as an off-agenda item at the last council meeting will get plenty of attention. Check back late Tuesday night for a full report on the meeting. I watch it so you don’t have to.

Finally, our cold and snowy winter has taken its toll on city streets. Potholes abound. Drive carefully lest you dislodge your catalytic converter or blow a tire. Although none will admit it, this is a great time to be a city councilor – plenty of potholes to get fixed.

2 Responses to Week in Review: February 23, 2014

  1. Joe S. says:

    That conflict of interest is certainly a gray area. In this case, the financial interest of Leahy’s sister would seem to come into play by virtue of her husband being selected for the CM position.

  2. Marie says:

    One of the things that hastened my “early” retirement from my teaching position at Lowell High was my brother Bill Kirwin’s election in 1975 to the Lowell School Committee. There was an impending teachers’ contract on the table and the consensus was Bill would be kept from voting on this contract. The school committee elected in 1975 consisted of … Katherine Stoklosa who topped the school committee ticket, followed by Patricia Molloy, Clement McDonough, George Khouloheras, Daniel Kane and William Kirwin. As I look at this list now at least one other member and maybe more might also be constrained… good thing I taught my last LHS class in June, 1976.