Our Common Council Majority Leader, Matt Dunn, said he’s had trouble following the ethics law he wrote. That’s a problem. It’s unacceptable that the people charged with making the laws don’t follow the laws.
After missing two annual filing deadlines required by the law he authored, the solution, he said, was to simplify the Financial Disclosure Form he finds so complicated. Our Common Council, under his pen again, passed a new form on a 9-0 vote. After the common procedure of a public hearing with three speakers (including me) pointing out deficiencies in the new form and the law, the Mayor vetoed the change in form. At the next Common Council meeting, amid promises to fix some of the shortcomings of the current law, the veto override got the 6-3 margin needed to pass as written.
The papers reported that I spoke wholly against the new disclosure form at the hearing. That’s wrong and incomplete reporting. Instead of repeat reporting the Majority Leader’s opinions (“It smacks of politics,” he said) of my motivation for speaking, they could have just asked me what I said. If they would have, I’d have told them the same thing I told the Mayor at the hearing, and repeated to the assembled Common Council; “Don’t trash the new form. It’s easier than the last. If we just disclose partnerships, and don’t give exemptions to disclosure for people who are licensed by the state, we’d have a better form. Your bigger problem is the lack of specifics in the whole law.”
Politics? Labeling Kingston citizens’ suggestions for improvement to the law “politics” is misdirection, to be sure. I am dismayed that petty allegations and personal attacks in defense of an incomplete law may distract us from finding solutions we need. We should expect better.
This replacement form only solves one problem of many: It’s easier to complete. We have more to do if we want to achieve the stated purposes of our ethics law.
It’s all about transparency, openness, disclosure, and the appearance of impropriety, according to the Majority Leader.
First, I see nothing in the law that would be improved by giving the Common Council power and control over appointments to and removals from the Board of Ethics. I cannot understand why the Majority Leader has suggested this, of all possible fixes, to his law.
The definitions of Conflict of Interest in the current law are adequate. Conflicts are hard to avoid in a small town. In fact, having a conflict of interest is not the problem; it’s only illegal to discuss, deliberate, or vote under the conflict. In the face of conflict of interest, the law directs officers and employees to recuse themselves, state why, and remove themselves from all discussions, deliberations, and voting. It’s a crime to do anything less.
The following are thoughts I presented on fixing the sticking points in the Financial Disclosure Form and the Ethics Law.
Sunlight on City Hall
-Make it a real disclosure form. Let’s disclose partnerships, client lists, business relationships, and campaign contributors, including those of spouses and domestic partners. How much an officer makes, or the dollar amount of such partnerships is less important than the potential conflicts exposed in a document specifically labeled “Disclosure Form”. Without the light of this crucial information, we can’t possibly see the pitfalls in our path.
Where the rest of the law falls down is on procedure. Our Ethics Law doesn’t tell us what to do with the forms once we turn them in, it doesn’t tell us how to disclose the contents, or who determines potential conflict, or even how we get complaints to the ethics board. Our majority leader, in communication to the Common Council President, cites language in the law about letting the “Board…promulgate its own rules and regulations governing its own organization and procedures.” I find it ironic that a legislator doesn’t want to give up the “power” to determine which streets are designated alternate side parking in a snow emergency, but is unwilling to complete this Ethics law by laying out procedure. Our law is light on specific protocols. Let’s fix that. Given that Majority Leader Dunn recently said the spirit of the law is openness and disclosure, it should not be hard to codify.
Mirroring the county law, the City Clerk should be Information Central.
-The City Clerk should mail and email out the Disclosure Forms to everyone who needs to complete the disclosure in the first month of the year, or within 30 days of an employee’s hire, or within 30 days of an officer taking office.
-The Disclosure Form is returned to the Clerk’s office in person by the stated deadline. Get a receipt.
-The Clerk keeps a list of those in compliance against a list of those required to complete the form.
-The Clerk should make copies, and distribute a copy to each member of the Board of Ethics and the Corporation Counsel’s Office. Originals go to file.
Who examines the Disclosure forms?
-The Board of Ethics meets to examine the disclosure forms and highlight potential conflicts.
How do we properly file complaints, and how do we know complaints were properly received?
-Complaints should be submitted via registered mail or in person to the Board of Ethics in care of the City Clerk’s office. The City Clerk shall copy and send complaints to each Ethics Board member and the Corporation Counsel’s Office.
Who determines specific punishments for findings of violations? What are those sanctions? The law allows for a fine up to $10,000.00, but what triggers the fine? We have no definitions of what rises to civil or criminal penalties.
What happens with Freedom of Information requests from press and public?
-The law should state specific guidelines for release of complaints, disclosure forms, and other data in response to Freedom of Information Law (FOIL) requests. Denials should be rare.
I would suggest that we follow the established conventions of redacting any specific dollar amounts, but, again, the spirit of the law is openness and disclosure. There is no language here giving guidelines to the Clerk, the Board, or FOIL Appeals Officer for release. In a well-written law, the Mayor would have minimal say in the release of information.
There should be some point where press and public are notified of significant actions.
Most of these are already addressed in our Ulster County law. Our Common Council might save a lot of time by drafting those county provisions into the city code.
We must insist that all of this be written into the law. How we get there is up for discussion, but we clearly can’t leave it up to people to “just know what to do”. For instance, Mr. Dunn’s complaint, that no one sent out the Disclosure Form, isn’t an excuse for non-compliance, though I bet the IRS gets that one a lot. The downloadable Disclosure, by the way, has long been on the City website, attached to the law.
Majority Leader Dunn didn’t know what to do, even though he insists that people should just figure it out on their own.
It’s a little sad that we need ethics laws at all. We should be able to demand better behavior than that from the people in our public trust. But, if we could count on everybody to do the right thing…
Fixing this is not politics, it’s just common sense.
*Editor’s note: Links to all documents referred to in the piece can be found on KingstonBarn’s “The Documents” page, or by clicking on the highlighted links. You will also find the Ulster County Financial Disclosure Form sent out this year to our County Legislators.