SHIRLEY -- Selectmen at a previous meeting agreed that most volunteers would be exempt from the state Conflict of Interest Law as it applies to municipalities.

But when they discussed volunteer exemptions again July 22, parameters of their earlier decision didn't seem so clear-cut.

Every city and town in the commonwealth is now required to notify its employees and those serving in appointed and elected positions that they are subject to the Conflict of Interest Law and must take an online course -- with a test -- to learn about their responsibilities under the law.

The town clerk is required to keep a record of compliance and report back to the state.

Town Clerk Amy McDougall's read of the law is that if some positions are to be exempted, even volunteer positions, the selectmen must specifically identify them. "I need a list," she said.

Council on Aging Director John Oelfke brought the matter to the board in the first place, arguing against notification and online course requirements for Senior Center volunteers. It could discourage stepping up to help out, he said, when in most cases the Conflict of Interest Law doesn't apply to volunteers anyway.

Selectmen conceded his point, at least in part, determining that if the volunteer services in question were not supervisory and didn't involve decision-making, those positions would be exempt. They asked Oelfke to come up with a list.

Last week, selectmen discussed the issue again in light of a lengthy motion McDougall proposed for them to vote on, spelling out the law and to whom it applies, with examples.

Selectmen were clearly taken aback. The motion indicates there should be a longer exemption list but does not provide it, David Swain said. "This isn't specific enough."

McDougall, harking back to the original motion, said the board made it "as presented," based on Oelfke's list, which didn't satisfy the letter of the law. Committees and volunteer functions they exempted must be "specifically identified," she said. "That decision can't be left up to me." She recommended approving the motion.

"I'm not prepared to do that tonight," Swain responded. But he asked why examples of exempted positions included special police officers.

McDougall explained that the special officers, whose primary employment is with other police departments, get the training required by the Conflict of Interest Law in those towns.

"I checked with the Ethics Commission," she said, adding that it's a different story for reserve police officers hired in town.

Selectman Robert Prescott suggested "streamlining" the motion to make it more concise.

"Why?" McDougall asked.

"We'd just need a list, not the examples," Chairman Kendra Dumont ventured.

"I think it's unnecessary to get into ... such depth," Swain said.

One obvious pitfall would be that in the attempt to create an all-inclusive list, they might leave something out, the selectmen said, such as Boy Scout clean-up crews or volunteers who might show up to help out at the Senior Center on any given day.

But McDougall stood firm.

"The law states that it applies to anyone who participates in government in any way ... unless specifically exempted," she said. It might have been less restrictive in the past, she acknowledged, but there's a broader definition now for "municipal employees," including community service.

Seeking a simpler means to the same end, Swain suggested a blanket exemption for everyone other than paid employees or members of committees and boards.

McDougall said that wouldn't work. "Every position is subject to the law," she said. And the law requires a list of everyone who's exempted.

Administrative assistant Kathi Rocco said the question is the intent of the law. "This could put a damper on volunteer activity," she said, siding with the board on that point.

McDougall said the law seems pretty clear to her. "The intent was that everyone knows what they're responsible for..." in terms of ethics in government, she said. 

In the end, the board agreed to go over her proposed motion and take it up again when they meet in two weeks and to contact McDougall in the meantime to iron out details.

"This was written by the Burlington town clerk, who is an attorney," McDougall said of the document on the table. "Let me know what you want to change."

She also suggested the selectmen contact the Ethics Commission to speak to the attorney on call, as she did.

In her view, it's time the issue was resolved.

"The law was passed in 2010," she said.