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Please Print Clearly

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.

I Promise

I Promise

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 KingstonBarn photo

Sunlight on City Hall
-KingstonBarn photo

-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.

Unfinished Barn -KingstonBarn photo

Unfinished Barn
-KingstonBarn photo

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.

-Andrew Champ-Doran

*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.

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Posted by on June 8, 2015 in Uncategorized

 

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Gather-Mix-Repeat

Gather-Mix-Repeat

Sometimes, the answers are simple.

Gerald Berke wants to know what’s going on in his city.  He shows up at meetings and events, reads the papers, listens to the radio, and pays attention to local blogs.  He asks questions, and he wants answers.  Berke gives feedback.  He considers this his town, too.

He is an interested, well informed, thoughtful, involved, and sometimes opinionated resident of Kingston’s 4th Ward.  When he got the chance recently at a Kingston Citizens forum to ask Aldermen James Noble, Matt Dunn, and Deb Brown anything about the Common Council’s workings, he got right to it.  His problem is simple.  He doesn’t know when his Alderwoman is holding her ward meetings.

She does hold meetings, Saturdays, at her neighborhood diner.  I asked, and she told me she brings in guests to answer questions and meet with neighbors.  Alderwoman Deb Brown holds monthly meetings, and jokes they are well attended because she brings food.  The 7th’s Maryanne Mills and the 5th’s Bill Carey are regulars with their meetings, and others’, too.  Elisa Ball meets constituents at the Quick Check in her ward.

Kingston City Hall

Kingston City Hall

As Mr. Berke said, though, people don’t always know.  Ward Meetings:  Where and when are two questions that come up a lot, and the answer often changes.

Let’s keep it simple.  We don’t have to make a law or pass legislation.  We don’t need to reinvent the wheel.  We only need to agree.  How about a monthly “Ward Meeting Day”?

We agree that we can do this on a particular day, the same every month.  Whether it’s the fourth Thursday at 7:00 or the last Saturday at Noon, it doesn’t matter, as long as it’s consistent.  It should be after the committee meetings have been held, and before the Caucus and Common Council meetings, so the Aldermen can present what’s before them to their wards, and the people can tell their Aldermen what they want done with the issues.

We agree that every Alderman can find some free venue in the ward to hold the meetings.  While campaigning last year, I found people at George Washington School and the Hudson Valley Senior Residence more than generous, and happy to provide a space for the meetings here in the 3rd.  Other wards might find a church hall,  a community center, or theater willing to open their doors to their neighbors.

We agree to have guests at meetings that can help answer the questions of the day, or explain what they do.  The Mayor, Police Chief, Alderman at Large, City Engineer, Firefighters Union President, Development Director, Assessor…the pool of potential official speakers is deep.  Many already do this, and tell me they’d be happy to do more.

We agree that this is a back and forth, where people can talk about their solutions as much as their problems.  It’s an open forum, and the agenda is flexible.

We agree to publicize the whole event, city-wide, for cheap to free.  Use your Facebook, Twitter, and email lists.  Ask residents to share listings with friends and neighbors.  Use the City’s improving website, get it to KingstonHappenings, and ask every local blogger to do his part.  For people without regular internet use, we can take advantage of calendar listings and stories in the papers, Public Service Announcements on the radio and TV, and post listings on local bulletin boards.  Heck, find out if we have some printing money in the budget, hire a local printer to produce schedules on quarter sheet cards, and put some of the franking fund into a one-time Every Door Direct Mail blast.

We agree to take November and December off, and give us all one less thing to worry about for our holidays.

We agree that most members already do some version of this, so it shouldn’t be considered a giant leap forward.  It is just one more step in service to the people of your ward and our city.

Mine the collective intelligence of the people of our city, and strike the rich veins of individual gumption we find there.

Simple.  Agreed?

-Andrew Champ-Doran

KingstonBarn.wordpress.com

KingstonBarn

 

 
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Posted by on July 1, 2014 in Uncategorized

 

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