2 City Councilors May Have Violated the State Ethics Law When Voting on the Budget

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FRAMINGHAM – Two of the 11-elected members of the Framingham City Council may have violated the state’s ethics law when the discussed and voted on the fiscal year 2021 budget.

Both are members of the Council’s 5-member finance subcommittee that oversees the budget.

The Massachusetts “conflict of interest law is intended to ensure that public employees, including elected leaders, act in the best interests of the citizens they represent, and do not pursue their own self-interests or other private interests”

This law prohibits a public employee & elected officials from “participating, by voting, discussing, delegating or otherwise acting, in any matter that affects: his or her own financial interests or those of a business partner; the financial interests of his or her immediate family members (i.e., the employee’s spouse; and the parents, siblings and children of either the employee or the employee’s spouse).”

District 2 City Councilor Cesar Stewart-Morales’ mother works for the Framingham Public Schools.

“My mother, Betsy Aguirre, works as a part-time cafeteria worker at Cameron Middle School in Framingham. When school is in session, she works 20 hours per week for $13.64 per hour,” said Stewart-Morales.

She was hired on October 1, 2018, and is a member of the Food Services union, according to the Framingham Public Schools. Her check is issued by the City of Framingham.

As a member of the City Council’s 5-member finance subcommittee, Stewart-Morales discussed, deliberated, and voted on the Framingham Public Schools budget for fiscal year 2021 in multiple subcommittee meetings.

“The city council does not vote on the line items in the school budget – only on the bottom line for the school budget as a whole. The cafeteria workers’ salaries were not considered at any meetings of the city council.  They never even came up for discussion,’ said Stewart-Morales to the news outlet.

Under state law, “participation includes not only voting on a matter, but also formal and informal lobbying of colleagues, reviewing, discussing, giving advice and/or making recommendations on particular matters.”

Each time, he did not abstain and leave the room during the discussion could be considered a violation, under state law.

Stewart-Morales also discussed, deliberated, and voted on the school budget during the full 11-member City Council meeting on June 9.

The state ethics commission advisory gave this specific example — “Example: A city councilor whose father works as a custodian for the school department must abstain from voting on a recommendation about the line item of the budget that includes her father’s salary. She should leave the room during any deliberation” and not vote on this matter. “She may discuss any other line item as long as it has no impact, directly or indirectly, on her father’s salary. She may also participate in the final vote to approve the budget as a whole at the end of this process.”

Stewart-Morales’ mother’s salary was included in the line item for the Framingham Public Schools. The school district only has the one line item in the budget submitted by the Mayor to the City Council.

The state’s conflict of interest law applies “regardless of the size of the financial interest.” So if a City Councilor’s immediate family member made $1,000 or $100,000, it applies.

“I did comment against cost of living increases for the school department, which would not work in my mother’s favor as a cafeteria worker,’ said Stewart-Morales.

Each time, Stewart-Morales did not abstain and leave the room during the discussion could be considered a violation.

The District 2 Councilor did not file a conflict of interest statement with the City Clerk’s office as of today at 8:30 a.m.

All elected leaders are expected to take a training in conflict of interest laws after they are elected. SOURCE asked Stewart-Morales if he took the training. He did not respond.

State law advises elected leaders that they must not only “abstain from voting,” but they “may not participate in any official discussion of the matter. Ordinarily, the best course of action is simply to leave the room during the deliberation and vote of the board.”

The state’s advisory does not specifically mention brother-in-law.

At-large City Councilor Janet Leombruno’s brother-in-law works for Inspectional Services at the Memorial Building. Mark Dempsey is married to Leombruno’s sister Karen Foran Dempsey, who is the School Committee member elected to serve District 2.

“In-laws who marry into the ‘immediate family’ are not considered to be members of the immediate family,” according to a State Ethics Commission’s advisory, when it comes to voting on financial interests.

“I strive to maintain the highest ethical standards. As such, I filed a disclosure with the city clerk stating that my brother-in-law works for the City. When his department came up it was not passed on and was lumped in with the other non-passed departments that were not discussed, I had planned on recusing myself from the vote but inadvertently voted on the group of line-items. In the future, I will recuse myself when my brother-in-law is involved,” said Leombruno in a statement to the news outlet.

When it came time to discuss the inspectional services budget at the finance subcommittee meeting, it was passed on. None of the five Councilors chose to discuss the line item. All the passed departments were voted as one line item and not individually.

When it came time for the full 11-member City Council to vote on the inspectional services budget, again it was passed on. Leombruno never discussed the budget at the June 9 meeting.

Under the state’s advisory, Councilors may vote on the overall budget, which includes the line item that may have a conflict or financial interest in.

Leombruno, who was sworn in as a city councilor for a 4-year term on January 1, 2020, did file a conflict of interest statement with the City Clerk’s office.

The filing is below.

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