Councilor O'Connell to Bill Stephens

Email to Mary O'Connell, July 21, 2010:

Dear Councilor O'Connell,

Thank you for taking the time to attend last night's School Committee public hearing.

On Masslive you are quoted as saying that the blame pointed at the council made you feel "like we were thrown under the bus."

I have no idea whether those remarks were taken out of context, so I hesitate to draw too many conclusions from them.

But I'm not puzzled by the blame pointed at the council. The council -- or at least the councilors who voted on the School Department portion of the budget -- threw the kids of Westfield under the bus.

I look forward to seeing the council preserve essential services by voting to restore funding for the schools.

Also, has anyone looked into the conflict of interest ruling that prevented some councilors from voting on the School Department portion of the budget? It struck me as highly unusual. It's one thing to hand a relative a no-bid contract or city job that wasn't posted. It's another matter entirely to vote on a multimillion-dollar budget that happens to pay the salary of a relative. The conflict of interest decision in this case doesn't seem to recognize this important distinction. If overly broad interpretations of conflict of interest become the norm, it will handcuff local governments. Local people by definition have extensive local ties and the use of conflict of interest provisions should be applied in a reasonable manner. This broad interpretation is unreasonable and played a role in this school funding debacle.

I don't like paying taxes any more than the next guy. But I also want essential city services preserved, and I know that costs money. I would not grumble about a tax increase if it meant preventing cuts that would destroy the quality of life in Westfield.

I know that being a council member is a thankless job, one made all the more difficult by these tough economic times. Thanks again for taking the time to attend last night's meeting, and thank you for your service to our community.

Bill Stephens

Mary O'Connell Responds, July 22, 2010:

I appreciate your email. As the daughter of two Westfield School System teachers I agree with all you say regarding school cuts. If I had been able to vote on the School Budget, I would not have voted for these cuts but unfortunately, I have a family member who works in the Westfield School System and as directed (in writing) by the State Ethics Commission, I am prohibited from voting on any school budget matter. I hope you understand that when I have in hand a specific letter, addressed to me from the Ethics Commission, after they have reviewed my case, I am bound to obey their edict. I actually went a step further and asked our City's law Department to review their decision and all agree that I am restricted from going against the Ethics Commission ruling. I'm sorry you do not agree with the Ethics Commission ruling and perhaps you might contact them for further insight.

I do appreciate your email and input, Mary O'Connell