Resign From Political Posts or Face Fine, Teachers Warned

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The Massachusetts State Ethics Commission has issued an ultimatum to teachers who serve on town and city councils that they must resign from those positions or face a maximum $1,000 fine.

The order is based on the assumption that a teacher's contractual agreement with a municipality conflicts with the decisions required of the teacher as a member of the town or city council.

The commission's ruling, initially made in 1980 and reissued in January, was aimed at an estimated 29 teachers who are "selectmen" on town councils and hold city-council positions in school districts throughout the state. They have been given until May 31 to comply with the agency's orders.

The commission had delayed enforcing its ruling for more than a year because the state legislature had been considering a union-supported bill that would have permitted teachers to hold city- and town-council positions.

Merry Duffy, spokesperson for the commission, said the commission first considered the conflict-of-interest question as the result of an inquiry in 1980 from a teacher who was serving as a selectman.

After receiving that inquiry, the agency issued an opinion that teachers who held positions as selectmen were in violation of Section 20 of the state's conflict-of-interest law, passed in 1962. That law forbids municipal employees from having "direct or indirect interest in a contract with their own municipality" and designates such conflicts as civil infractions, subject to a fine.

"The issue is whether someone who serves as a selectman is a municipal employee," Ms. Duffy explained. "Teachers are not being singled out. The commission's opinion also affects policemen, firemen, and any other public employee."

'No Financial Interest'

As an addendum to its earlier ruling, the commission last month exempted from the law teachers employed in regional school districts. Ms. Duffy explained that since teachers in regional school districts are not employed by any one town, "there is no financial interest with any one of the towns served by the district."

As a result of heavy lobbying by the state teachers' unions, however, late in the last legislative session both houses of the state legislature approved a measure that would have nullified Section 20. But the bill never reached the governor because of a Senate filibuster.

Richard Durkin, director of governmental services for the Massachusetts Teachers Association, agrees with the commission's recent ruling exempting teachers employed by regional school districts, but says that it should extend to all teachers.

There should not be distinction between teachers employed by a regional school district and those employed in districts serving one town, he adds, because the "link is tenuous."

"People should not vote on issues involving contracts if the contract affects them--and they don't," according to Mr. Durkin. "We say [the opportunity for conflict-of-interest votes in one-town school districts] is remote and we aren't buying" the commision's interpretation.

A second legislative measure that would resolve the conflict-of-interest question for teachers was approved by the House but amended by the Senate. Under the Senate's amendment, local officials would be given authority to decide whether teachers who serve as selectmen would be violating state law.

Ms. Duffy said that if the measure is signed by the governor, it still will not resolve the question for teachers serving on city councils, because the bill only addresses the issue with regard to selectmen.

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