Legislative Council member Mary Ann Jacob has resigned from the education committee following a recommendation by the town attorney who cited a potential conflict of interest between her committee role and job as a school library clerk.
The announcement came at the end of Wednesday's council meeting at the Municipal Center. Jacob, who was elected to the council last year and has been chairman of the committee for about six months, also works part-time at the Sandy Hook School library.
"Anybody would be hard-pressed to say I did anything that (presented a conflict of interest)," Jacob said, adding, however, that tough times were ahead as the town looks to manage the education budget, including contract negotiations. "There can't be any concern at all that I might be in a position that would compromise that."
Although a conflict of interest does not necessarily exist between her library job and role on the council, it might arise more often at the committee level, officials said.
"In this regard, I would recommend that the member should resign from the educational subcommittee for the practical reason that there could be a significant number of situations where she would have to recuse herself and thus impair her efficacy as a member thereof," Town Attorney David Grogins said in a written legal opinion dated May 19.
The issue of her potential conflict of interest came up in April moments before the council was about to vote on the amount of the budget request to send to referendum. During that April 7 meeting, officials did not make those concerns public.
A day later, after being asked about it by Newtown Patch, council Chairman Jeff Capeci discussed the issue, and said he had a legal opinion from Grogins saying there was no conflict of interest.
However, Capeci said during Wednesday's council meeting that he had gone back and forth with Grogins by phone and e-mail about the issue, but that it was only after the April meeting that Capeci had sought a written legal opinion from Grogins.
In the written legal opinion, Grogins said there was no conflict of interest standing in the way of Jacob voting on the budget, including the education side, because the council only has control of bottom line expenditures while the Board of Education has the authority to adjust line items.
However, when it comes to discussing the details of the education budget, Jacob must tread more carefully, Grogins said.
"In the event the discussion of the Legislative Council moves in the direction of specific line items in the budget, including but not limited to personnel, libraries, number of teachers, etc., the member should disqualify or recuse herself from participating in the discussion," he said in his opinion.
Capeci said that in light of those concerns, Jacob's effectiveness on the education committee might be compromised.
"I've talked it over with Ms. Jacob and she's going to step down from the education subcommittee to remove that possibility," he said.
That means a slot on the education committee as well as the role of chairman is open. The education budget is a perennially controversial topic in town.
Capeci said he is accepting committee nominations from council members and hopes to make an announcement soon on who will fill those openings.
Council member George Ferguson, who also serves on the education committee with Jacob, said she has been an effective chairman, and that the town must be careful on where to draw the line in these situations.
"I would like to express some chagrin that Mary Ann is leaving the education subcommittee," he said. "I do think we need to be careful about letting conflict of interest get in the way of what we need to do."