Attorney and investigator Regina Ryan suggested that one policy apply to all appointed and elected officials acting on behalf of the town.

Codes of conduct for municipal boards and committees was the topic of a free webinar hosted yesterday by the Massachusetts Select Board Association and the Massachusetts Interlocal Insurance Association. Featured speakers were attorney and investigator Regina Ryan and Sandwich Town Manager Bud Dunham.

A code of conduct should give direction on board interaction with other board and committee members, the community, town staff, and the town administrator, Ryan said. The code should cover all written material, including social media posts and emails.

When it comes to implementing a code of conduct, Ryan suggested that one policy apply to all appointed and elected officials acting on behalf of the town. When a new board or committee member is sworn in, the town clerk should be responsible for having him or her sign off on receiving a copy of the code. This should also be done upon reappointment or re-election.

Once a code is adopted, it is the role of the chair of the select board and other boards and committees to enforce the policies and monitor as needed. If a member violates a tenet of the code, he or she can be asked to attend a training session. Municipalities can check with their insurer about the availability of training on this and related topics.

When a complaint is filed, Ryan said, it should be investigated, even if it’s against a board member who is accountable to the voters. The town needs to demonstrate that it took the complaint seriously. In smaller towns that may not have a town administrator to manage an investigation, an outside firm should be engaged to do the work. Professional liability carriers, like MIIA, can assist with this service.

Ryan said she has seen an increase in recent years of harassment and discrimination claims involving municipal elected and appointed officials. These could involve a select board member mistreating a department head, a planning board member pressuring an employee for information outside the boundaries of their position, or a board member harassing another volunteer or town employee.

She said all appointed and elected officials need to realize how significant an impact their behavior has on staff who work hard for their communities. She advised elected officials to watch their tone, be respectful, and be consistent.

Ryan said she has also seen an uptick in conflicts between town administrators and select boards. She recommends that local officials work through appropriate channels and not involve outside parties in disputes.

Another area where conflict can arise, Ryan said, is when individual board members communicate directly with department heads. In some cases, they may be given information or services that aren’t given to others, which can create hard feelings and damage the working relationship with the other members. It also breaks the chain of command, since most department heads report directly to the town administrator, if the town has one. This is another area where harassment complaints have been developing, Ryan said, as staff often feel obliged to field inquiries from board or committee members. A clear chain of command should be in place and observed by officials and staff, she said.

In Sandwich, Dunham said, Select Board members are given town email accounts, and that is the only communication method he and other staff use with the board members. His advice: Never write anything in an email that you “don’t want a jury of eight people staring at you and listening to you read in court.”

In some cases, Ryan said, it is residents who are harassing staff. This can take the form of repeated visits to a town office, inappropriate behavior and language, or activity that can be considered threatening. Dunham suggested asking the police department for assistance, as they are often aware of the individual.

Ryan has more than 25 years of experience in municipal work and specializes in harassment and discrimination investigations through her firm, Discrimination and Harassment Solutions.

More than 400 local officials attended the webinar.

Sample Code of Conduct – Massachusetts Interlocal Insurance Association (160K PDF)
Sample Harrassment and Discrimination Policy – Massachusetts Interlocal Insurance Association (170K PDF)
Mass. Municipal Management Association – Code of Ethics and Sexual Harassment Policy, Including Procedures (170K PDF)

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