Dan Hust | Democrat
Legislator Kitty Vetter and County Attorney Sam Yasgur were integral parts of Wednesday’s Executive Committee discussion on the county’s proposed new ethics law.
Ethics law just about ready for public review
Story by Dan Hust
MONTICELLO May 3, 2013 Legislators in principle on Wednesday approved the county’s proposed new ethics law, clearing the way for a May 16 hearing where the public will have a chance to speak before the official Legislature vote.
Three primary issues occupied the two-hour discussion this week, with all nine legislators reaching consensus, albeit sometimes reluctantly.
Listing it out
Legislator Cindy Gieger insisted the new law include a specific list of affected positions.
Like legislators will do with a list of agencies falling under the ethics law’s authority, she advocated for passing the law with a stipulation that within 60 days the Legislature will draft and approve a list of positions which must adhere to the new rules.
Gieger argued that people should know if the job or volunteer role they hold (or hope to hold) will subject them to the requirements of the ethics law, which is anticipated to be more stringent than the existing law.
She also argued that while the list can be reviewed annually by the Legislature, legislators should only have the power to delete positions when those positions no longer exist (legislators would also be free to add positions as necessary).
Legislator Kitty Vetter wanted that to be firmly incorporated into the new law’s language, but attorneys Cheryl McCausland and Sam Yasgur advised that it be set by a separate resolution, so that future changes to the list don’t require amending and readopting the entire law.
McCausland also pointed out that the current ethics law is actually written so broadly that it encompasses every county employee, official and volunteer without a specific list.
Ultimately, legislators agreed to adopt a list via a separate resolution within 60 days of the enactment of the new ethics law one for positions, one for agencies.
Legislator Cora Edwards’ desire to add anti-bullying and intimidation language into the ethics law garnered unanimous support as well.
In fact, both Edwards and Legislature Chairman Scott Samuelson said they’d been subjected to intimidation tactics by county officials before they became legislators.
The language was tweaked slightly to ensure its applicability to county officials who use threats or other fear tactics for personal gain not to hamstring department heads in the normal management and discipline of their workers.
Changes not made
Legislator Gene Benson reiterated a change he had proposed the prior month, barring attorneys, accountants, lobbyists and board members of county-funded agencies from also serving as an elected county official.
“You either choose to serve the public or make a profit,” he explained, noting it’s in response to a general perception “of nonaccountability” by government officials.
Legislator Jonathan Rouis didn’t think that language was legal to add to the ethics law.
“Under this, the county treasurer couldn’t sit on the board of a nonprofit,” Rouis argued.
“If there’s personal gain,” Benson replied.
“That’s not what it says,” Rouis responded.
Concerns abounded around the table.
“It’s one thing to be a board member,” McCausland mused. “It’s another to be an outside professional a board hires. I mean, that’s their livelihood!”
She said she understood Benson’s desire to avoid any perceptions of ethical violations but didn’t think that language could be added.
“The point is, why are people so worried if they’re not doing anything wrong?” Benson wondered.
“This assumes people will do something wrong,” replied Yasgur, who felt the change would preclude legislators from sitting on boards that they’re statutorily required to be members of (i.e., Cornell Cooperative Extension).
It was finally pointed out that the “financial interest” section of the proposed ethics law already deals with personal gain issues.
“This law is a much more active law than the present law,” Yasgur assured Benson.
“Well, there has to be more enforcement,” Benson urged.
“Yes, that’s true,” agreed Yasgur. “... If you appoint the right people [to the Board of Ethics, which will review and investigate complaints], you’ve given them the tools to work with in this law.”
Benson’s proposed change was thusly dropped, as was one from Gieger. The new ethics law would prohibit legislators from voting on a matter involving an agency or individual who contributed $250 or more to their campaign(s) in the past year. She wanted that lengthened to legislators’ full four-year terms, but her colleagues did not agree.
McCausland indicated she’d have the final draft of the proposed law on legislators’ desks by Monday.
So at this point, a public hearing set for May 16 at 1:30 p.m. at the Government Center in Monticello is still on.
By next week, the draft should be available for citizens to peruse via the Legislature’s Office and the county’s website, www.co.sullivan.ny.us. (The current online version has not yet been updated.)