Thursday, September 6, 2007

Problems With Our Ethics Code and Commission

As a Member of a Council Subcommittee, I spent a lot of time drafting changes to the Town's Code of Ethics. The revised Code was adopted and will soon be available in pamphlet form in the Town Clerk's Office. After all that work and more, it is clearer to me now than ever before that not only do we have a system that is dysfunctional but that we need a regional solution to the problem.

A poster wrote that the Town Ethics Commission cannot be effective because it is too inbred. I agree 100% but the problems don't end there.

How in this Town can you find people to serve who aren't in some way connected to an accused? And how can you expect people to serve without training in ethics matters? Even some attorneys on the Commission are confused about ethics issues and some are incapable of following the procedures required by the Code. Some haven't enough education or real-world experience with terms like "probable cause" to know its meaning. Without recourse, both complainants and respondents are left in the cold, rendering the entire process a farce. "Sue me if I didn't follow the proper procedure," could be the Commission's wholly unacceptable position. This is a winning argument in Court since it is hard to prove any impropriety without a record but it is a certain loser in the court of public opinion and perception.

In addition, given the difficulty of finding members who are completely at arms' length with respondents, there must be clear rules about recusal. Should a member recuse himself if he has represented a respondent? If she is a member of his congregation? If he has consulted her professionally or if there is a familial connection or friendship?

A regional ethics board would allow members who have no contact with New Milford to hear complaints. I believe that all the Members of the Subcommittee support the idea.

There must be substantive as well as procedural changes. For example, is it acceptable for a public official to vote on a purchase order that provides money to her employer? Does it matter if she scrubs the floors for that employer or is the head of a department?

The Code's preamble provides, "Having the trust of the public is essential for government to function effectively." Our present system fails to ensure that certain improprieties can be adequately addressed and it doesn't have the trust of this member of the public.

Proposed changes are on the way.

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