Town Councilor Phil Overton recently wrote a letter to the editor – pockmarked with solecisms and misspellings – boasting he “hope[d] local politicians will use [him] as a guide to how to do things right” – i.e., “always striv[ing] for ethics excellence.” Given the swagger, an examination of recent history is in order.
Back on May 18, 2015, when the Westerly Town Council first publicly considered the Ocean Community YMCA for administrator of the Westerly Substance Abuse Task Force grants, it was the consensus of the Council that the YMCA would take over the management of the task force grants. During that meeting, Councilor Jean Gagnier revealed that he worked for the YMCA at Camp Watchaug but felt it was unnecessary for him to recuse himself from the conversation. Overton, despite being a member of the YMCA and its Heritage Club, remained silent on a possible conflict.
At the June 1, 2015, Council meeting, the appointment of the YMCA to oversee the task force was again on the agenda. Gagnier, once again, revealed his conflict but nevertheless declined to recuse himself from the deliberation. Overton, now, acknowledged a possible conflict of interest but he also participated in the discussion. According to the minutes of the meeting, both Overton and Gagnier “expressed their support for the YMCA taking over the Substance Abuse Task Force.”
After the June 1 meeting, Overton filed a “Statement of Conflict of Interest” with the R.I. Ethics Commission, regarding the “YMCA as a substance abuse task force program director.” In his “Statement of Conflict of Interest,” Overton disclosed that he was “a member of the YMCA and they [sic] are in my will.” Despite his potential conflict, Overton asserted “[t]he relationship I have with the Y will have zero effect upon my decision to select the appropriate provider for substance abuse [sic].” Gagnier also filed a “Statement of Conflict of Interest” with the R.I. Ethics Commission, stressing that “although I work for 1 week per year at YMCA Camp Watchaug,” “due to the small % of income [sic] my employment I can be objective in this matter.” Gagnier also admitted he was a member of the YMCA and of its Heritage Club.
At the June 8, 2015, Council meeting where, once again, the YMCA administering the task force grants was discussed, Gagnier and Overton decided, this time, to recuse themselves due to their stated conflicts. Gagnier filed a “Statement of Conflict of Interest” with the R.I. Ethics Commission — as required by RIGL § 36-14-6(1); Overton did not file a “Statement of Conflict of Interest” — ignoring the ethics law.
Gagnier, thereafter, recused himself from discussions about the YMCA. Overton, however, never recused himself from any further Council deliberations about the YMCA and he never filed another “Statement of Conflict of Interest” as required by RIGL § 36-14-6(1). Overton instead continued to forcefully advocate for the YMCA to take over the management of the task force grants and the Council ultimately acquiesced. Only Councilor Jack Carson, who possessed the foresight to appreciate that the task force would be rendered “a paper board” with the YMCA as the administrator, cast the lone dissenting vote.
By July of 2015, the “Ordinance Relating to the Creation of a Substance Abuse Task Force” had been adopted and Overton had been appointed as the Council’s liaison to the task force. Gagnier promptly nominated Overton for appointment to the task force as the local elected official representative. From that point forward, Overton presented glowing (albeit misleading) reports to the Council on the progress of the YMCA’s management of the task force grants.
In August of 2015, the Sun reported that “the Town Council's decision to allow [the] YMCA to appoint a coordinator to manage grants awarded to the Westerly Substance Abuse Prevention Task Force [was] coming under fire.” Councilor Louis Sposato rightfully declared “the move violated the recently approved ordinance establishing the task force as a town agency.” The ordinance requires the coordinator to be appointed by the council (or its designee) and requires that the position be advertised in a local newspaper. The YMCA had filled the position by surreptitiously promoting one of its employees; there was no advertisement of the position.
Overton was adamant that the Council should not dictate to the YMCA — even if its actions violated the task force ordinance. Instead of bringing the task force into compliance with the ordinance, Overton wanted to modify the ordinance to allow the YMCA to dominate the task force in perpetuity. He branded the ordinance (for which he voted) defective. Ultimately, Overton’s plea to ignore the ordinance won out as the Council was content to bury its collective head in the sand.
Six months earlier, in February of 2015, Overton had been pointedly critical of the previous coordinator, Mary Lou Serra, when he learned there were “only” three applicants for task force positions. "It strikes me as a very small number," Overton said, as reported by the Sun. Unlike the YMCA, Mary Lou Serra had advertised the vacant positions. Overton was now hypocritically content with no advertisement and no applicants.
In February of 2016, the Sun reported that the state agency monitoring the task force “raised concerns about the pace of work and spending as well as potential staffing problems.” An oblivious Overton proclaimed he was “very pleased with the work of the Y and the coordinator." By May of 2016, however, the task force coordinator had resigned and the task force had run aground with Overton at the helm.
In January of 2017, Overton resigned as the elected official representative of, and liaison to, the task force. During Overton’s 13-month tenure, the task force did not “prepare and submit a written report of its activities to and appear before the Westerly Town Council” (“on at least a semi-annual basis”) as mandated by Section 2(d)(1) of the task force ordinance.
A month after Overton abandoned the bridge, the Sun reported the “Westerly Substance Abuse Prevention Task Force [was] functioning under a corrective action plan imposed by the state and [was] in jeopardy of having most of its funds taken away for failure to follow grant requirements.” According to the state agency that monitored the task force, the organization had had been "virtually rudderless.” It had “made no progress on the strategic plans for its existing grants since October 2015” and was “flagrantly out of compliance with its grant requirements." Approximately $7,900 of grant money was ultimately lost before the ship was righted in April of 2017.
I would sincerely hope that no one will hold up Overton as an exemplar of ethics. He did not heed his own admonitions: “when you have a conflict... it can skew your judgment;” and, “It is critical that unbiased eyes are always looking at matters that are important to the public.”
Robert L. LombardoWesterly