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Saturday, February 2, 2013

Town of New Hartford Ethics Code..."It's Old", according to the Town Attorney

In an article found on the Observer Dispatch website, New Hartford panel might revisit 42-year-old Code of Ethics, Supervisor Tyksinski says:
When the time came to refer a matter to the ethics board, in January 2012, the Town Board handed it over to the Oneida County Board of Ethics.The county came back, saying that because the town has its own ethics committee, it should take care of its matter, Tyksinski said.
According to General Municipal Law Article 18 and the NYS Attorney General:
The county board of ethics shall not act with respect to the officers and employees of any municipality located within such county or agency thereof, where such municipality has established its own board of ethics, except that the local board may at its option refer matters to the county board. [emphasis added].
Basically, under General Municipal Law, even though New Hartford enacted a local law to create an Ethics Board, the county had the authority to handle this case because the town DID refer it to them; but the county chose not to get involved in this sticky wicket.

We have to ask...why, when the "accused" was informed over a year ago that this was going no where as far as the county was concerned, is the town supervisor bringing this back to the front burner more than a year AFTER the alleged incident? Further, why is the town attorney not advising the town supervisor and the town board that the case in question does not even come under the town's purview?

The Observer Dispatch article continues:
The most immediate task for the committee is determining whether the town’s decades-old Code of Ethics needs an update.

The code was adopted by the Town Board on June 17, 1970, without a single amendment being made in the subsequent 40-plus years, according to the town code’s website.

“It’s old,” Town Attorney Herbert Cully said simply.
Old?? That's an understatement. It's not only old, but it also is not written to give the newly formed board the authority to investigate nor does the local law contain the necessary language informing anyone brought before the ethics board that they have the right to counsel and to commence an Article 78 if they are not satisfied with the outcome. Where was the town attorney in all of this? Why didn't he inform the town board of the potential problems with the OLD Ethics Code before the "accused's" name was made public?

A Google search produced many good articles regarding Code of Ethics and the role of Ethics Boards.

One article we found, Running A Municipal Ethics Board...Ten Steps to a Better Board, was written by Attorney Steven G. Leventhal, a certified public accountant and a partner in the Roslyn law firm of Leventhal and Sliney, LLP. Attorney Leventhal is also the former chair of the Nassau County Board of Ethics.

According to Attorney Leventhal:
Ethics advice is intended to provide a shield against unwarranted criticism for honest officers and employees, not a sword for use by political or personal foes.
The Ethics Board's role is not to conduct witch hunts; it's supposed to be there as a resource for employees and elected officials to turn to if they have a question on whether something they plan to do is contrary to the town's Code of Ethics.

At the last town board meeting, Supervisor Tyksinski and Town Attorney Cully recalled that in the past, complaints were sent to the town board and they decided whether to send it on to the Ethics Committee. Oh, now that's an independent board!  And just what would happen if the next "accused" party is a town board member or other elected official?

Actually, we found several articles written by Mark Davies, the Executive Director of the New York City Conflicts of Interest Board. According to Mr. Davis:
"The single most important characteristic of an ethics board consists of its actual and perceived independence. An ethics board that is controlled, in reality or in perception, by the municipality’s chief executive officer or governing body will garner little respect, either from those subject to its jurisdiction or from the public or media. Consequently, its advice and enforcement decisions will be viewed as suspect. As a result, the board will fail in its mission to promote both the reality and the perception of integrity in government."
In his article, Mr. Davis points out three (3) factors that should be taken into consideration when creating independence in an ethics board:
• The process of appointing and removing board members;

• The required qualifications for board members; and

• The absence of control of the board or board members by any other municipal official or body.
Mr. Davis also notes that appointments should be for a specific term and under no circumstances should ethics board members serve at the pleasure of the chief executive officer, a situation that would make them little more than his or her pawns. He also suggests that no member of the ethics board should have any other position with the municipality or with any other municipality of which that municipality is a part.

Further, according to Mr. Davis:
"...prohibiting a majority of the members of the board from belonging to the same political party may help preserve the political diversity of the board, of particular importance perhaps where the municipality’s elected officials are drawn overwhelming from a single political party...".
Let's face it, the bottom line is that an Ethics Board that hasn't met in several years; that is suddenly reincarnated because a third party has made demands for the removal of someone who the Ethics Board has no authority to remove; and particularly a year after the county refused to handle the same exact case sent to them by the town; more than likely will not be ready to defend the sufficiency of the Town of New Hartford's 1970 Ethics Code.

Perhaps the town board should re-examine their motives for reincarnating the town ethics board and consider putting together an ad hoc committee to make recommendations to the town board for changes that should be made to the chapter in town code dealing with ethics while at the same time keeping in mind the original intent of the law which is to educate and inform; not to crucify.

We will leave this topic for the moment with one last thought...we already pointed out two major blunders of the town board in an earlier blog. The town actually blundered on many other points, but there is actually a third MAJOR blunder that will be revealed if and when the Ethics Board issues the "accused" a "Request to Appear" before the board.

On a related today's Observer Dispatch:
New Hartford GOP seeks candidates

NEW HARTFORD – The New Hartford Republican Committee is advertising for the follow­ing political positions for the November election: Town supervisor, town clerk, town justice, high­way superintendent, First Ward councilman, Third Ward councilman.

Anyone interested in running on the Republi­can line for any of these positions is asked to call Kristine Giotto, commit­tee chairwoman, before March 15 at 724-3710.


Anonymous said...

"The town actually blundered on many other points, but there is actually a third MAJOR blunder that will be revealed if and when the Ethics Board issues the "accused" a "Request to Appear" before the board."

That sounds like a threat.

New Hartford, NY Online said...

No threat's a promise!