Ethics Code: Headed for revision
By Eli Ruiz
MONTICELLO March 19, 2013 A special meeting of the County Legislature has been called for Thursday at 11:30 a.m. to discuss long proposed revisions to the county’s current ethics code.
At last Thursday’s legislative session, Legislator Cindy Kurpil Gieger voiced her concern with the current state of the Sullivan County Board of Ethics, which, after losing most of its members, is no longer fulfilling its purpose. “It seems like we’re kind of in limbo currently,” said Gieger. “We really need to step up and get the law passed and the board in place.”
Legislative Chairman Scott Samuelson said that members of the Ethics Review Committee who actually drafted the new proposed ethics law have been invited to this Thursday’s special meeting and are expected to lead a presentation on the proposed ethics law revisions.
This committee, formed back in late 2011 by former Legislative Chairman Jonathan Rouis, made the revisions to sections of the code that include the rules that govern standards of conduct for county officials and employees as well as the handling of ethics complaints against those same officials and employees.
The committee members included retired New York Police Department detective John Konefal; retired judges Burton Ledina and Anthony Kane; and Sullivan County Human Resources Director Lynda Levine.
According to Legislator Alan Sorensen, “In the process of drafting this law they [the members of the special ethics review board] held their own public hearings.… I’m glad they at least made a point of making it available and at least soliciting public input into the law’s development.”
Problem is, those hearings were held in June of last year, and much to Sorensen’s chagrin, no action on the new law has taken place since.
“It just needs to move forward. We’ve had one excuse after another for delaying the adoption of this law, and I think we need to give the public [another] opportunity to comment on it at a public hearing. If there are some substantive objections that are raised by the public, I think we should certainly take those into consideration,” offered Sorensen.
One of the concerns raised regarding the ethics law as it stands today is whether legislators as currently required by county ethics law can objectively review ethics complaints filed against colleagues.
“The current procedure [stipulates] that if there’s a complaint, legislators have to literally draw straws and then pick three legislators who then decide if the complaint should move forward to the ethics committee,” explained Sorensen, who added, “Just by stating the process it’s clear that the ethics code in its current form is troublesome… and inevitably one of those people who draws that short straw says, ‘I have a conflict, so I can’t serve on this’… it just doesn’t work.”
According to the language of the proposed new law, the ethics board would have broad powers to investigate any alleged impropriety and recommend and undertake appropriate actions and procedures, as required. In order to carry out its duties the board shall have the power to, among other things, administer oaths and affirmations; subpoena witnesses and compel their attendance requiring the production of relevant materials, books, and records.
“These are very strong provisions included under the proposed ethics law… that’s just not part of the existing code,” said Sorensen. “I think all of these things point to a more transparent government and I think help to maintain the public’s trust that government officials are acting in a manner that’s in their best interests.”