To the Editor:
On Tuesday, Oct. 11, I attended both the Town Council’s Legislative and Administrative (L&A) Committee meeting and the Town Council meeting that followed and at which the nomination of Chrissy Fensore Martinez to fill a Board of Education (BoE) vacancy was discussed and voted upon. What I witnessed troubled me greatly and the comments since then in our local press have only added to my concerns.
As an elected member of the Monroe Board of Finance (BoF), it is important that anyone reading this letter understands that all the comments herein are mine alone and they are not intended to represent the Board or any other member(s).
It should be noted that during both the committee meeting and the Council meeting, no one questioned Chrissy Fensore Martinez’s qualifications to be a BoE member. In fact, those that spoke during the meeting or have written about it since, have acknowledged that she is qualified.
So why was her nomination voted down? Based on the statements made by Town Council Chairman Mr. Jonathan Formichella, it all centered around perceived “conflicts of interest”. In his Letter to the Editor he states, “Reasonable people can disagree as to whether conflicts of interest are present with Mrs. Fensore Martinez’s nomination.” So why not take the time to get outside advice to try to clarify the issue?
Based on his concerns, it seems reasonable to me that the Council could have postponed the vote and then sent these questions and concerns to multiple entities that could have provided guidance to the Council. The Monroe Board of Ethics, the Town’s attorney, the Connecticut Office of State Ethics, the State Department of Education, and the Connecticut Association of Boards of Education (CABE) all come quickly to mind. Why were none of these resources contacted?
Chairman Formichella’s concerns centered around two major issues. The first is that Chrissy Fensore Martinez’s employer Aspire Living & Learning, Inc. (Aspire) does business with the Monroe school system and the second issue was that her husband is an administrator in another school district.
Chairman Formichella stated that the school system has paid Aspire about $3.4 million since 2013. A review of the town budget documents for the nine (9) school years starting from July 1, 2013 through June 30, 2022 shows that the district spent a total of about $497.84 million. That means that Aspire accounted for only 0.0068 of all spending. Is this really a significant amount?
Chairman Formichella acknowledged that Chrissy Fensore Martinez stated she would recuse herself from voting on issues involving her employer. That statement should have ended any potential conflict. Any official can have a conflict of interest but if they recuse themselves then the conflict situation is eliminated.
As it turns out, the use of Aspire to provide services to the district is not even a decision made by the BoE members. The choice of Aspire (and similar decisions) are typically made through the special education department or the PPT (Pupil Placement Team) process. Therefore, there is no possible conflict for Chrissy Fensore Martinez here.
Interestingly, a review of BoE Policy #9270 entitled “Conflict of Interest” recognizes and addresses this specific situation. In short, it allows for BoE members to work for companies doing business with the school system so long as the member does not “…furnish directly any labor, equipment, or supplies the district”. The policy also says that having a BoE as an employee of a company will not prevent the district from contracting with the company.
Chairman Formichella in his Letter to the Editor, suggests that Mrs. Fensore Martinez’s presence on the BoE may might undermine public confidence due to the prior monies paid to her employer. That makes no sense to me. She had nothing to do with funds paid in the past. Furthermore, to suggest that any one Board member can affect payments is clearly illogical. If there are any questions about payments to any company, the first place to turn is the six-member Republican majority that has been in control of the BoE since well before 2013.
As to Chairman Formichella’s concern about Mrs. Fensore Martinez voting on the Monroe school district’s Administrators’ contract, a conflict of interest only can be present if there is a direct benefit to the individual or a close family member. Mrs. Fensore Martinez’s husband is employed by another town’s school system. The Monroe collective bargaining unit contract has no effect on any persons other than those employed by Monroe. Therefore, there is no conflict of interest and nothing for her to recuse herself from.
Furthermore, Mrs. Fensore Martinez was nominated for “a term ending November 27, 2023”. A review of the current contract with the “Monroe Association of School Administrators” shows that it runs from “July 1, 2021 – June 30, 2024”. This means that Chrissy Fensore Martinez’s term will end about seven (7) months before the next contract. She will not be voting on this contract during her term. This means that this whole issue is moot and therefore it is clearly not a reason to reject her nomination.
My final thought is not about conflict of interest. Rather, it is that I believe that the Council vote taken on October 11, 2022 was invalid. As noticed in the agenda for the meeting, “All votes taken during which any member of this body is participating remotely shall be taken by roll call, unless the vote is unanimous.”
The vote was not taken by roll call. It was taken by voice vote – twice – due to confusion about how many persons were voting. The Chairman actually announced a three-to-three vote before changing and announcing a three-to-four vote. I believe that the vote needs to be retaken.