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Monday, October 8, 2012

Same boards, different looks; Ethics panels vary in makeup, duties, depending on municipality

As published in the Record Journal Sunday October 7, 2012

By Laurie Rich Salerno
Record-Journal staff
(203) 317-2235

WALLINGFORD — In his opening statements at last week’s ethics hearing, resident Robert Gross called into question the independence of ethics boards appointed by a mayor or a government council — which is how Wallingford, Southington and Meriden ethics boards are constructed.

Gross read a letter from a nonprofit municipal ethics group he had consulted. The letter, from Robert Wechsler of City Ethics, said that “It is bad enough that the Board of Ethics’ members were elected by the mayor and approved by the council and, therefore, are not seen by town residents as wholly impartial,” and suggested that board members be chosen by community organizations.

Wechsler, a North Haven resident, is director of research at City Ethics, a nonprofit organization that analyzes local government ethics programs.

Gross ended up withdrawing his complaint, but left the letter with the board.

“So what community group has no conflict with anyone?” said Wallingford’s Mayor William W. Dickinson Jr., questioning the suggestion on Friday. “Certainly we all have to be concerned with conflicts of interest, but you have to use some reason with evaluating what can work, what makes sense.”

In Wallingford, Southington and Meriden, board of ethics members are appointed by the mayor or council. In each municipality the board takes up ethical issues dealing with municipal employees and elected and appointed officials.

In Wallingford, five Board of Ethics members and three alternates are appointed by the mayor and then go before the Town Council for approval. Members can be from any political party or unaffiliated, but there can’t be a majority political party on the board, Dickinson said.

Meriden’s five ethics board members are appointed the same way, but Southington’s Town Council appoints members and requires their party affiliations to be split, with two Democrats and two Republicans on the board and two alternates of opposing parties.

Cheshire does not have an ethics body, and routes all complaints to its town attorney or town manager.

Cheshire’s town attorney, Dwight Johnson, agrees with Wechsler that politics can play an unappealing role on ethics boards and recommends that a town attorney — as long as he or she is not a political appointee — field ethics questions or complaints.

“Virtually all towns have an ethics and conflicts policy. When a question arises, you don’t need a committee to analyze the issue, vis-à-vis the policy, you need a lawyer to do it, or the town manager,” Johnson said.

Attorneys for the other municipalities disagreed.

“I wouldn’t want this department to be the be-all, end-all,” said Wallingford’s corporation counsel, Janis Small, “You can look to seek some advice from your law department, but they’re not the end decision.”

Meriden Corporation Counsel Michael Quinn said that in the city having legal counsel act as an ethics board would carry the same ethical concerns Johnson is voicing – because he is a political appointee of the city council majority, and City Attorney Deborah Moore is an employee who could be considered to have a conflict of interest dealing with ethics claims for another employee.

“I don’t know that there’s ever any really 100 percent absolute way of preventing any possible political conflict like that. It’s just a reality,” said Quinn. “Every community has to do it the way they think works best for them. In Meriden, this is how we’ve done it and I think it’s worked well.”

In Meriden and Wallingford, the Board of Ethics handles charges of ethics violations and advisory opinions, in which the board considers whether a person has a conflict of interest that preclude ruling or voting on a specific issue.

In Southington, the town attorney gives advisory opinions, but the ethics board still adjudicates complaints of violations.

If someone who has received an advisory opinion is later called up on an ethics complaint “that particular person could submit that to the ethics committee. That would help them immensely in front of the ethics board,” said Town Attorney Mark Sciota.

In Southington the board’s opinion is presented to the committee or council the member serves on, and they must vote whether to accept it. In Wallingford and Meriden the opinion is sent to the town or city council with recommendations for disciplinary action.

The boards have recently weighed in on high-profile cases in each municipality. Most recently, in Wallingford, Gross lodged a complaint against Town Councilors Tom Laffin and John LeTourneau, both Republicans, saying they shouldn’t have discussed an issue regarding Holy Trinity School because the two had ties to the school. He withdrew the complaint.

In Meriden, former 12-year City Councilor George McGoldrick was ultimately cleared of ethics charges in May 2011 regarding his role as a consultant with architectural firm Fletcher Thompson while the city was interested in hiring the firm.

In Southington, Parking Authority member Matthew Florian was censured in September 2011 for voting on an overnight downtown parking plan that would have affected his business.

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