AYER — Since taking office, Ayer’s newest selectman has experienced a brush with the state’s Conflict of Interest law. Once concerns surfaced, Christopher Hillman withdrew his company’s bid on an Ayer DPW project.
“I have not taken online ethics training, nor has anybody informed me I had to,” said Hillman on July 31. “But I would be happy to, if it’s required.”
Most town, county and state officials — whether elected, appointed or hired — must complete the Ethics Commission’s Online Training Program. The goal is to prevent conflict between private interest and public duty by proactively informing public officials what they may do on the job, after hours, and after leaving public service.
There is the potential for civil and/or criminal penalties for violating the law. Civil fines can climb to $10,000 (and $25,000 in bribery cases); imprisonment is available in criminal circumstances.
The law dictates that all elected, appointed or hired town employees must receive a summary of the Conflict of Interest law from their Town Clerk.
Ayer Town Clerk John Canney confirmed that he provides the summary to each employee who visits his office. Each visiting employee is asked to sign an acknowledgement of receipt of the summary which is kept on file.
“We just keep them A-to-Z,” said Canney. “There is no record for Christopher Hillman.”
Hillman is president and owner of Hillco Heating & Cooling Inc. of Littleton. Hillman said Ayer DPW Superintendent Mark Wetzel sought his advice on how to deal with HVAC problems at the Spectacle Pond Water Treatment facility off Wagon Road (which is located directly next door to Hillman’s home).
“I did offer my professional opinion on the dehumidification problems” said Hillman. “I also did submit a bid proposal.”
The Secretary of State Corporations Division shows Hillman is president of for-profit Hillco Heating & Air Conditioning Co. located out of his home. His wife, Alison Hillman, is the corporation’s vice president, secretary and treasurer.
Hillman reviewed a former bid package assembled by former DPW Superintendent Dan Nason. The former fix, estimated at $50,000, was “obsolete,” said Hillman. Instead of installing one large dehumidifier in the building, Hillman proposed installing two smaller ones.
On May 25, Hillman provided Wetzel and Water foreman Rick Linde with a sample request for quotes job specifications. Ayer Town Administrator Robert Pontbriand provided a copy of the sample RFQ on Aug. 1 in response to Nashoba Publishing’s July 29 request for related documents.
“Hillco will remove and discard existing dehumidifiers at Spectacle Pond Water Treatment facility and replace with two Aprilaire 1770A commercial dehumidifiers,” read the sample Hillco quote. Hillman estimated the job at $7,562.
Initially believing he couldn’t bid on the work, Hillman said Wetzel indicated he would “talk to Robert (Pontbriand)” to discuss whether the Conflict of Interest law allowed Hillman a way to submit a quote.
Hillman said he was somewhat surprised to receive a bid package from Wetzel. Wetzel also sent RFQs to Lorden Company of Ayer and Muirfield Mechanical of Boxborough. Each letter, dated June 5, indicated that “Ayer Town Administrator Robert Pontbriand” was copied on the letter, too.
The RFQs were due at the DPW’s Brook Street office by 1 p.m. on Wed., June 20.
Hillman submitted a quote on June 11 which was identically worded to his May 25 scope of services and $7,562 bid. On June 20, Muirfield Mechanical submitted a bid of $7,900. Lorden didn’t bid.
On June 21, Wetzel flagged ethics concerns with Hillco’s quote in a memo to Pontbriand.
“Hillco is owned by Selectman Hillman. There was no advantage or preference given to him during the RFQ process, however I am concerned with the potential conflict of interest with awarding Hillco the bid,” wrote Wetzel. “Please advise.”
“I determined that … two smaller dehumidifiers were a more cost effective alternative and would require minimum work to install,” said Wetzel without reference to Hillman’s earlier assistance to hone the RFQ.
Wetzel advised that he was attaching the June 5 bid for quote to his memo. Pontbriand said that was the first time he ever saw the RFQs.
“No one had ever consulted me — neither Mark or Selectman Hillman — to advise that this was going on,” said Pontbriand. “I found out about it sometime after the bids were submitted. Once I found out, I checked with town counsel the minute I saw this. I was very concerned about it.”
Town Counsel Mark Reich provided his opinion in a July 5 email to Pontbriand.
Reich detailed the range of criminal penalties possible for those who intentionally violate the law. Reich then opined that Hillman is a “municipal employee” and so “the award of a contract to his company would result in his having a direct financial interest in a contract made with the Town.”
Reich suggested Hillman could have sought a “specific exemption” by both filing a disclosure statement of his financial interest with the Town Clerk’s Office, and then seeking an open-session vote of the selectmen to “approve the exemption.”
“Failure of the Board of Selectmen to approve the exemption would, in my opinion, result in the financial interest being deemed a conflict of interest subject to the penalties outlined in G.L. c. 268A, sec. 20(a) as quoted above,” wrote Reich.
It was not clear if Reich believed Hillman could rehabilitate his June 11 bid or whether he was advising on what steps Hillman could have taken to inoculate himself from the conflict concerns at the outset.
Hillman said he also consulted fellow selectmen Jim Fay and Pauline Conley. Hillman said Fay recommended a disclosure approach as was used previously by former selectman Rick Gilles in disclosing potential conflicts of interest relating to Gilles’ work as a sustainable building consultant on Devens. Hillman recalled Conley advised that she would support Hillco’s bid only “if the Ethics Commission says its OK.”
When the Ethics Commission suggested the situation could cause the “appearance of a conflict of interest,” Hillman said he opted to withdraw his quote entirely.
“I informed Robert at the beginning of July that I would not be involved,” said Hillman. “Town counsel said I would have to inform Mr. Canney’s office if I were to pursue this, but I did not.”
“After consultation with the Ethics Committee and town counsel, they recommended I remove myself from the process, not because of ethics issues, but public and media perception,” said Hillman in an email dated July 30.
Hillman said his wife also advised him to withdraw his bid. “She has a good sense for these things.”
In a July 16 letter, Wetzel notified Muirfield Mechanical that the “Town of Ayer has accepted your quote,” adding, “We are anxious to get this work completed.”
Despite the ethics dust-up, Hillman said, in the end, the town saved more than $40,000 while fixing the problem. Hillman praised Wetzel. “He was trying to save the town money. He was fantastic.”
The matter has yet to surface at a selectmen’s meeting during the month of July.
Canney acknowledged that there may be a gap in getting the Conflict of Interest summary copies disseminated to all town employees. A missed opportunity was Election Day.
State law permits either the town clerk or the town moderator to administer the oath of office to incoming elected officials. As registrar of voters, Canney oversaw the April 23 town election.
Immediately after the results were announced, Town Moderator Dan Swanfeldt offered to administer a group reading of the oath of office for race winners on hand in Great Hall. “For those that were there, Dan will say ‘We’ll swear you in,'” said Canney. “He’s been doing that regularly.”
Hillman was the runaway-winner in the three-way race for two selectmen seats. Incumbent Gary Luca placed second and secured a successive term on the board. Third-place finisher Mark Coulter didn’t secure a seat and was not on hand, having suffered a severe stroke on election eve.
Swanfeldt administered the oath to Hillman, Luca, Board of Health member Mary Spinner, Planning Board member James Lucchesi, and Ayer-Shirley Regional School Committee member Dan Gleason. Of the group, only Hillman was elected to his first term in office.
Canney said selectmen appointees receive a “pink card” generated by selectmen secretary Janet Lewis confirming their term. The filing of the card with the clerk’s office prompts a face-to-face meeting with Canney when appointees are provided with the summary of two laws.
“Then they come down to us and we give them a copy of the Conflict of Interest and Open Meeting Law,” said Canney. Canney says “I have them sign for it.”
Canney agreed Hillman “may have never been given the online training notification. Maybe there could be better means in which to notify people.”
On Monday, Pontbriand said he has certificates of completion for all the selectmen but Hillman. Pontbriand said he’s advised Hillman to complete the online training “ASAP.”
At the urging of the selectmen, Pontbriand advised all departments, boards, employees, committees and commissions in a Jan. 24 memo to complete the online training and to submit their certificates of completion by Feb. 3. It was a town-wide sweep that predates Hillman’s election or Wetzel’s hiring.
Pontbriand said Wetzel has since completed the online training and provided a certificate of completion on Aug. 2. Pontbriand said he has certificates from all other elected officials, Ayer police and fire officers, and employees of the Ayer DPW. Certificates are good for two years.