A former member of the Oak Bluffs zoning board of appeals who is also an architect was fined $3,000 this week by the Massachusetts Ethics Commission for violating the state conflict of interest law. William (Chuck) Sullivan represented clients on six occasions in front of his own board, the ethics commission found.
Mr. Sullivan this week agreed to the terms of a disposition agreement with the state ethics commission which stipulates he must pay a $3,000 civic penalty and forfeit $600 he received from clients he represented before the zoning board.
A sole proprietor Island architect who resigned from the zoning board in June, Mr. Sullivan was initially fined $10,000 and asked to return over $2,000 to his clients. The amount of the fine was reduced after his attorney, who is also his sister, disputed several of the claims with the ethics commission.
The disposition signed by Mr. Sullivan says he submitted design plans to the zoning board on behalf of clients on six occasions. His participation varied; in some cases his role was limited to answering questions and on other occasions he gave presentations on his designs and advocated for special permits. One of the occasions was a late December public hearing on an expansion plan by the Lookout Tavern. In a story published in early January, the Gazette reported on Mr. Sullivan's apparent conflict of interest.
Massachusetts general laws prohibit municipal employees, including elected and appointed officials, from directly receiving compensation or acting as an agent for anyone other than the town in matters that involve town business.
"A town official owes undivided loyalty to the town. He cannot step out of his official role and move to the other side of the table to represent clients before the board he serves," said ethics commission executive director Peter Sturges in a press release issued this week about Mr. Sullivan.
In an unusual twist, the Oak Bluffs selectmen voted during an Aug. 22 executive session to indemnify Mr. Sullivan by paying his $10,000 fine. But the selectmen reversed their decision after town counsel Ronald H. Rappaport told them they had no legal authority to pay the fine.
"We can find no legal authority which would authorize the town to pay the actual fines imposed for conflict of interest law violations (even if approved by a town meeting vote)," Mr. Rappaport wrote in a Sept. 19 letter to town administrator Michael Dutton.
In the letter Mr. Rappaport confirmed that Mr. Sullivan, through his attorney, asked the town to pay his penalty in exchange for an agreement that he would not take future legal action against the town.
Minutes from the Aug. 22 executive session have yet to be released, so it is unclear what type of legal action was threatened.
But in a six-page letter to the state ethics commission, Julie Sullivan, Mr. Sullivan's sister and attorney, claimed the town may have known about her client's conflict of interest for years, but failed to take any action.
Ms. Sullivan said in the letter that selectman Kerry Scott admitted during the executive session that she knew Mr. Sullivan was violating the state ethics law for two years, and had brought her concerns to former town administrator Casey Sharpe, who took no action.
Ms. Sullivan also said her client received assurances from former zoning board chairman Philip Hughes that he could serve on the board as long as he recused himself during matters involving him or his company.
Reached by telephone on Tuesday, Ms. Sullivan said she could not comment on any legal action against the town.
"All I can really say is that we have already made an offer that involved a waiver of liability from any claim against the town," she said.
Mr. Sullivan also said he was unable to answer questions about legal action against the town, and referred all other questions to his attorney.
In another letter to the ethics commission, Jane Lofgren, a member of the zoning board since 1999, said Mr. Sullivan expressed concerns about a possible conflict of interest when he was first solicited to apply for a seat on the board.
"Mr. Sullivan expressed concern that, in his capacity as a local architect, he would routinely be required to appear before the board of appeals on behalf of a client. He clearly indicated that if his appointment in any way created the appearance of a conflict, he would prefer not to serve," Ms. Lofgren wrote. Ms. Lofgren said Mr. Sullivan received assurances during a meeting between the zoning board and Ms. Sharpe that he could avoid any conflict if he recused himself for applications in which he or his firm had an interest.
"Mr. Sullivan is a talented architect, a respected member of the Oak Bluffs community, and a very caring person. The only shortcoming would appear to be a willingness to serve his town in the difficult and sometimes controversial role of zoning board of appeals member," Ms. Lofgren wrote.
Selectman and board chairman Duncan Ross had no comment on the matter this week.
Ms. Scott would not comment on the executive session, but confirmed she had shared her concerns about Mr. Sullivan's conflict of interest with Ms. Sharpe on several occasions over the past few years.
"I didn't talk to [Mr. Sullivan] about it at the time because I thought the appropriate thing to do was to report it to the town administrator and try to get some type of legal opinion. To my knowledge, a legal opinion was never asked for or received," Ms. Scott said.
Ms. Scott said she had no reason to believe Mr. Sullivan's actions were malicious, and agreed he may not have known that what he was doing constituted a conflict of interest.
"What we have right now is a great deal of confusion over ethical responsibility - it is unclear what you can and can't do as a member of a town board or commission - and I think more can be done to clear up that confusion," Ms. Scott said.
She said the town has already made strides to better educate town officials about the law. Several members of town boards recently attended a seminar hosted by the town of Chilmark with a spokesman from the state ethics commission. Christine Todd, a member of the zoning board of appeals who is also a real estate agent, resigned after attending the seminar, citing personal concerns about possible conflict.
Ms. Scott also noted that selectmen last week refused to appoint two contractors to the board of appeals in hopes of avoiding future conflicts of interest.
"I think we are starting to do more to protect the good people who take the time to serve on these boards and commissions. It's often a thankless job - at the very least we can educate them on the state's conflict of interest laws," Ms. Scott said.
Mr. Dutton, who replaced Ms. Sharpe as town administrator in July, agreed the town can do more to provide board members with information about possible ethics violations.
"It's easy to avoid any conflicts in a big city like Boston, but in a small town like Oak Bluffs, where everybody is seemingly connected in some way, you run into situations all the time when it isn't clear what is a conflict and what isn't. And to make matters worse, there are fewer people who have the time and the expertise to serve on these boards," Mr. Dutton said.