Editorial: Minor Conflict; A Forgivable Oversight in Claremont

On the spectrum of transgressions committed by elected officials, the one attributed to Claremont School Board Chairman Richard Seaman falls pretty far down the scale — somewhere between minor and trivial, perhaps. We certainly hope it doesn’t affect the outcome of a proposed energy efficiency upgrade that appears to offer a good deal to Claremont taxpayers.

The proposal will be voted on at the March school district meeting and would authorize the School Board to enter into a $7 million lease arrangement with Johnson Controls, a Milwaukee-based company. The company would undertake energy improvements at Claremont schools — new windows, heating systems, insulation and lighting — under a guarantee that the lease payments would be covered by the savings achieved through reduced energy use. After the lease contract is paid off, the continued benefit of reduced energy costs would flow to the school district. The measure will be on the ballot with a separate $12.6 million bond to renovate Stevens High.

As reported by blogger and gadfly (blogfly? gadger?) Jim Sullivan, there’s an uncomfortable confluence of circumstances: Seaman is the chief financial officer for the Student Conservation Association, a national nonprofit based in Charlestown. Johnson Controls has been a consistent and generous benefactor of the association, donating between $200,000 and $600,000 yearly to help pay for a program that serves inner-city youth. As chairman of the School Board, Seaman now finds himself in the position of having some influence over a project that would provide a nice chunk of business to a company that helps his employer.

After Sullivan reported on the situation, Seaman said he never thought about disclosing his conflict of interest because it never occurred to him that it was a conflict of interest. He has pledged to recuse himself from any future discussions involving the deal.

That should put the matter to rest. A number of mitigating factors are in play here. First and foremost is that Seaman did not play a pivotal role in linking Johnson Controls with the School Board. Claremont found out about these lease arrangements through George Caccavaro, a city resident who as business manager for the Mascoma Regional School District, is pursuing a similar deal for his employer. He mentioned the Johnson arrangement first to School Board member Gene Grumman and later spoke about the proposed deal at the School District’s deliberative session. The first contact between the School District and Johnson was made by SAU 6 Business Manager Tim Ball. Seaman joined the email exchanges shortly thereafter.

Other considerations include the fact the Johnson Controls’ contributions to the Student Conservation Association are a minor portion of the nonprofit’s overall budget, less than 2 percent; that the company is an established provider of this sort of upgrade, having done about 2,500 around the country; and that the project will go nowhere without the approval of voters.

School Board member Brian Rapp’s appraisal seems just about right: It would have been better had Seaman recognized that his situation required disclosure, but it’s hardly a monumental mistake. Now that it’s been adequately addressed, Claremont voters can focus on evaluating the benefits of the deal as well as the School Board’s proposal to undertake a much-needed renovation of the high school.