By Dan Hust
MONTICELLO On the heels of two resignations from the county’s Board of Ethics, legislators recently agreed to organize a group of citizens to mesh the board’s draft rewrite of the county’s ethics code with newly released rules from the state.
Grahamsville resident Phyllis Coombe (best known as Sullivan County Community College’s board chair) and County Public Safety Commissioner Richard Martinkovic nearly simultaneously stepped down from the Ethics Board a month ago.
Both cited busy schedules and also some frustration.
“Although the board met at least nine times to develop a revised Code of Ethics for the county between September 23, 2008 and October 14, 2009; studied codes from five other counties; and sent a draft in October 2009 to the county attorney’s office for review, no action was ever taken by the Legislature, nor were the board members contacted about possible revisions,” wrote Coombe in her resignation letter.
“I have no time nor very little desire to begin that process again,” she added in a subsequent interview.
“I can’t drop my everyday workload, which is heavy in the summer, and do basically a staff function of edits and reviews for a new code,” Martinkovic explained. “Not at the expense of working with response to emergency incidents, E911 issues, water emergencies on the Delaware and the lakes, DWI arrest increases for VIP [Victims Impact Panel] and other programs that I must oversee, etc., and these items must be done each day and not put off to the fall. Enough is enough!”
He also felt he had a serious conflict.
“I sit there as the chairman and could get cases sent to us that charge one or more of my ‘bosses’ [legislators] with ethics violations,” Martinkovic said, “and I am to make a decision for or against them direct conflict.”
Legislature Chairman Jonathan Rouis said last week that he’s finalizing the list of residents to sit on the “citizen’s commission,” but the Legislature itself will have to replace Coombe and Martinkovic, and he expects that to be accomplished after the citizens’ group finishes its review and makes recommendations.
Rouis also said the “conflict of interest” section of the code needs special attention.
“Our definition of ‘conflict of interest’ is a very high bar,” he explained to his colleagues recently, referring to the existing mandate that only real (as opposed to perceived or potential) conflicts of interest are grounds for abstaining from votes.
“There have been times,” he added, “when we found it doesn’t rise to that level but people want to abstain from an appearance of conflict.”
On the other hand, he continued, he doesn’t want to give legislators “carte blanche to duck voting on issues.”
“You got elected to vote, and sometimes that’s hard,” County Attorney Sam Yasgur admonished legislators.
But Yasgur admitted that the current abstention rules don’t specifically address gifts like the Bethel Woods box seats Forestburgh farmer Stuart Salenger gave legislators Leni Binder, Jodi Goodman and Frank Armstrong in months past.
Instead, a separate part of the ethics code deals with gifts and only those over $75 in value.
The result in the Salenger situation is that Binder and Goodman weren’t sure they could abstain from a controversial vote on including his property in an agricultural district (see related story).
Though they maintain there is no actual conflict of interest, they seemed to concede there could be a perceived one yet if they had abstained without admitting a conflict exists, their votes would each have been registered as a “yes.”
In the past, in lieu of abstaining, legislators have actually left the room during certain votes, though this past Thursday, Rouis accepted Binder and Goodman’s abstentions as proper.
However, all sides seemed eager to avoid repeats of that dilemma. (Indeed, one of Salenger’s neighbors has asked District Attorney Jim Farrell to investigate the propriety of Binder and Goodman’s votes.)
Binder and Goodman, stung by criticism in the Salenger issue, have called for a clarification of the ethics code to permit abstentions when a legislator’s “relationship with an individual or firm having an interest in the legislation is such that casting a vote might create an improper impression of a positive or negative bias.”
That wording was included in a resolution presented at two recent Executive Committee meetings, but the Legislature has yet to vote on it.