RSS

Tag Archives: Ethics

Smells Like Team Smear It

In a hastily released memo, City Hall tried to catch up to a story broken by Mid Hudson News Network, followed shortly by Cahill on Kingston, and the Daily Freeman.  Earlier in the week, and without public notification, Mayor Steve Noble sent out letters to every member of the Kingston Board of Ethics, informing them that their services were no longer required.  Effectively, he had dissolved the Board.

Crumbling in the Shadows -KingstonBarn Photo

Kingston Booth House Crumbling in the Shadows
-KingstonBarn Photo

It was beginning to look like the Kingston version of Nixon’s Saturday Night Massacre.

The press release, issued days after the deed had been done and hours after it began appearing in the press and local political blogs, makes little sense.  In fact, it may be a violation of the Ethics Law to fire the entire board with the intent to leave the seats vacant. Look under Chapter 49-10, “Board of Ethics”.

Mayor Noble said, “I have decided to relieve the board members of their duties so that we may complete the Ethics Law revisions and launch a board appointment process that is most effective and appropriate.”

This statement gives us an indication of the desperate rush to get it out, but does little to illuminate the shadows it casts.  We know that at least one of the board members’ resignations was accepted early this year.  Why did the Mayor convince him to come back, only to fire them all?

The planning board has not been disbanded during the making of the Kingston Master plan.  The Zoning Board has not been disbanded during the rewrite of the Zoning laws.  I haven’t heard the Mayor call for resignation of the Common Council while the administration tries to gut key provisions of the Ethics law.

There is no reason this board cannot continue to “function effectively” until after the current law is changed, unless their mere existence as a board is some sort of impediment or threat to the administration’s political goals.

The Ethics Board serves at the pleasure of the Mayor.  It is obvious that this board did not please Mayor Noble.  Without transparency, or even the common courtesy of thanking them by name, these are the public servants Mayor Noble dismissed

Chairwoman Jean Jacobs, former School Board President and 2011 candidate for Mayor.
Karen Clark-Adin, Owner of uptown’s Bop to Tottom.
Reverend Doris Edwards Schuyler, Pastor of Riverview Baptist Church.
Brad Jordan, Owner of Herzog’s and the Kingston Plaza.
John Reinhart, Officer in the Kingston Fire Department.

They have served on this board since its inception.  It is disrespectful and disingenuous to the board, and a disservice to people of Kingston, to praise the board while dissolving it, and to tell us they cannot serve honorably while this Mayor makes “revisions” to the Ethics Law.

These changes look like an attempt to hide conflicts, and make it easier to sell public office for personal gain.

This smells like retribution and political shenanigans.

-Andrew Champ-Doran

*Editor’s note:  Find more stories and see documents referenced by clicking on the highlighted links, or going to KingstonBarn‘s “The Documents” page.  KingstonBarn posts and comments reflect the opinions of the authors only.

 
7 Comments

Posted by on May 21, 2016 in Uncategorized

 

Tags: , , , ,

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.

 
Leave a comment

Posted by on June 8, 2015 in Uncategorized

 

Tags: , , , , , ,

Meet Before High Noon

This week’s Daily Freeman headline, Ethics veto threatened: Kingston Mayor Shayne Gallo calls the measure ‘unconstitutional’, casts the Mayor as Gary Cooper, standing in the middle of the deserted dirt street, waiting.

The adoption of the provision described in the story would effectively ban any elected member from running for reelection, unless they could afford to do so entirely on their own.  Quoting from the Hoffay measure, ‘a city officer or employee, the mayor and department heads shall not directly or indirectly ask anyone to contribute to the political campaign of a city officer or employee running for any elective office or the political campaign of anyone running for elective city office.”

As a result, if I am Alderman Dunn or Mayor Gallo, I can’t set up a “Friends of Matthew Dunn” or “Committee to Reelect the Mayor” fund, as that would be indirectly asking for funds for a campaign.  I could not ask anyone to put up a yard sign, or carry a petition on my behalf, as that would constitute a contribution, “to the political campaign of a city officer or employee running for any elective office or the political campaign of anyone running for elective city office.”

This limits those that can run for any city office to people who do not work for the city in any capacity, and to those who do not currently hold office, and eliminates the ability of any of those people to even support anyone for any city office.  That not only severely curbs their freedom of speech, but imposes a de facto one-term limit on every elected office for the city.  Mayor, Alderman, City Court Judge; none are exempt. Term limits should be left for the voters to decide.

I understand the conflict of interest inherent in sitting elected officials becoming elected officers within the party committees, and legislation against that conflict is supported by the Mark Davies email cited by Alderman Dunn.  I do not read that email statement, though, as support for no committee membership, no campaigning, or no support of another campaign.  That would be a misdirected stretch, at best.

Knowing that conflict is often more interesting than agreement might make it easier to see why words like “Veto” and “power”, make better copy than “pass” and “compromise”.  This is the point, though, where we often pull the wrong thread, and the process unravels.  It’s wiser to follow the right thread all the way through.

Here is a link on the City of Kingston’s website to the two legislative proposals:  Ethics Legislation and Financial Disclosure Proposed by Mayor Gallo Ethics Legislation Proposed by Alderman Hoffay  Click on the individual links, and compare the two at the source.  I’ve read them both, and I’ve formed some opinions about the legislation before the Public Safety/General Government/Audit Committee.

Get rid of the provisions causing the problems.  The rest of the law does not hinge on the inclusion of these few provisions.  While we don’t need one or two party strongmen directing the ballot, the Political Activities by High Level Officials prohibitions, as they appear in the Hoffay/Dunn legislation, are written too broadly, and are a liability.  Does the Common Council want to spend so much time and effort and goodwill in the lengthy process of debate and passage, only to find out their reward is a losing legal challenge?  Of course not.  Other (more likely and equally bad) outcomes would be a Mayoral veto, or that the bill dies in committee, and another piece of important legislation meets its inevitable all-or-nothing fate.  The common sense approach would be move quickly on the rest, and leave the argument behind.  If, after passage, the Common Counsel find a need for some provisions of this sort, craft and pass an amendment to the law.

Beyond that, there is room only for agreement.  In spirit, the two bills are essentially the same.  Both define conflict of interest and present a clear path for recusal.  Both call for tighter controls on officials commensurate with increasing rank.  Both want to close the “revolving door” some government officials and their lobbyists share.

Mayor Gallo’s proposal is more detailed and precise, as are his definitions.  His calls for a two year period between leaving the city position and dealing with city officials again, as opposed to the one called for in the Hoffay/Dunn proposal.  The list of city officials covered by Gallo is more extensive, and restrictions they face generally seem a little tighter.  He also includes copies of all disclosure forms to be completed by the employees.  For those reasons, I support the Gallo legislation.  It is ready now.

Alderman Dunn is working in the right direction on this legislation.  The intent and instincts are clearly right, but the execution, in these minor instances, threaten to sidetrack the debate, and eventually the whole bill, into the thick bog of committee consideration until it can no longer emerge.  Dunn wants us to keep in mind the purpose and intent of the laws we are considering.  He is right.  We need to open up our government, and increase the integrity we’ve let slide in too many offices for too long.   He has already agreed to post all of his committee’s agendas on the city’s website before the meetings, and he’s done so.  I applaud that, and the willingness of the parties involved to keep working on this much-needed legislation.  With care, what we get will be far better than what we have.

This is a negotiation, not a standoff.

-Andrew Champ-Doran

 
Leave a comment

Posted by on August 2, 2012 in Uncategorized

 

Tags: , , , ,

 
%d bloggers like this: