March 9, 2009
The state Ethics Commission each year investigates thousands of complaints alleging misdeeds by city and town officials.
Over the last five years, 577 of those complaints came from South Shore towns. But instead of large municipalities like Quincy or Weymouth generating the most, it’s the small towns, like Abington and Rockland, that top the list, with 70 each from 2004 to 2008.
“These are small towns, people know each other,” Bridgewater State College political science professor Michael Kryzanek said. “People are neighbors, and people gossip and spread rumors.”
The three biggest South Shore towns, Quincy, Plymouth and Weymouth, rank 23rd, 18th and 25th, respectively, out of 26 towns.
In bigger communities, it’s harder for individuals to know what’s going on, Kryzanek said.
“Ultimately, it means that people are interested; they’re concerned; they’re involved,” he said. “There’s nothing wrong with people being a watchdog in a town where it’s their money.”
A complaint, however, doesn’t mean there is definitely a violation. Anyone can file an complaint anonymously, and one person could file several complaints on the same issue.
Commission Spokesman David Giannotti said he couldn’t fathom a guess as to why some towns have so many more complaints than others.
“You can have one or two of those people that want to complain about everything,” Rockland Town Administrator Allan Chiocca said. “It doesn’t mean there’s merit in (the complaints).”
A small town is like a family, Chiocca said, the people in it usually know exactly what’s going on.
“It kind of goes to a golf score,” he said. “Nothing increases your score like a witness.”
Some towns just have more involved citizens. While most communities have a hard time filling seats, Abington even sets on the park and recreation commission are contested, Town Manager Philip Warren Jr. said.
“Abington has been and always will be a politically charged town,” he said. “In folks’ political zeal, they use the Ethics Commission more as a spear than a shield.”
Abington led the list with 70 total complaints. During the same period, there were two violations.
Having alert whistle blowers is a good thing, as long as they’re not abusing their responsibility, Kryzanek said.
Chiocca worried that the allegations against officials could discourage others from participating in these hard to fill positions.
“To be subjected to implications of impropriety when nothing exists, certainly discourages people from volunteering in many cases,” he said.
Small communities have a shrunken pool of candidates, creating more opportunity for perceived conflicts of interest. Personal and family connections can raise eyebrows, Kryzanek said.
Such is the case in Rockland, where selectmen Chairman James Simpson’s son is a police officer.
The Hanover board of health makes rules about animal issues, but two members own horse farms.
When fishery issues come up in Marshfield, Selectman Michael Maresco has to disclose that his father in law is a lobsterman.
“It gets harder and harder in smaller towns where so many people are related,” Chiocca said.
In Weymouth, which operates under a mayoral form of government, dealing with the problem in house means the Ethics Commission never has to get involved. The town of 53,000 people had only 11 total complaints.
“The buck stops here in the mayor’s office,” Mayor Sue Kay said. “I take all the responsibility.”
Warren said he takes exception to the anonymous process of filing a complaint, where there is no accountability.
“It makes it easy for someone that wants to correct some injustice they feel they’ve suffered at the hands of the town,” Warren said.
With people watching the budget process even more closely this year, Kryzanek said he expects complaints to rise.
“There’s an increasing level of suspicion that people in government … are abusing their office,” he said.
In the interest of disclosure, Kryzanek noted he is a member of the Whitman-Hanson school committee.
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