making local government more ethical

How Can I Hamper Thee? — Let Me Count the Ways

In the last installment of the ongoing Stamford (CT) ethics battle, the major antagonist had reached a settlement with the ethics board, and the principal cases, both ethics proceedings and a federal suit against the ethics board and the ethics complainants, were withdrawn. But this is a grudge match, and the major antagonist, who resigned from his position as chair of the board of finance, has friends. So the battle goes on.

In the middle of the principal battle, the ethics board had asked the board of finance for funds to hire an attorney to advise it in the many proceedings it faced. This request was rejected. After the settlement, it asked again, for less money, and its request was once again rejected.

According to an article in the Stamford Advocate, a letter to the editor from the ethics board in today's Advocate, and the minutes of the finance board meeting, the acting finance board chair and an ally took the position that the charter does not expressly provide for the hiring of an attorney by the ethics board. The other finance board members noted that all other boards in the city may hire experts when needed without, I assume, an express provision.

Suggesting a Conflict
The two finance board members suggested that an attorney sitting on the ethics board investigatory panel should represent the panel, even though she said that this would make her both decision-maker and adviser, an untenable position. Also, this is not her area of expertise. I don't suppose the finance board would hire a criminal lawyer to give it advice on municipal bond matters.

Wielding a Grudge
Sadly, the acting chair does not appear to be able to control his true feelings. He told the Advocate that if the lawyer on the investigatory panel could not advise the panel herself, she should resign. And he also said that the panel's decision to ask for an attorney "is nothing more than laziness on its part." In other words, he holds a serious grudge against these people, since they were part of what led to his colleague having to resign from the finance board. And it is his personal feelings, rather than the good of the city, that appear to have led to his decision to withhold funding for counsel (a supermajority vote is required, so two members can block an appropriation).

The ethics board, in its letter to the editor, defended its actions, and seriously criticized the acting chair's comments, concluding that "these members have intentionally sought to interfere with the enforcement of the Code of Ethics at a time when everyone in our community should be interested in ensuring that it is fairly applied." The letter is worth reading for its clear explanation of the role of an ethics commission, and the importance of its procedures.

Penalizing an Ethics Commission for Doing Its Job
The acting finance chair is, unfortunately, too typical of elected officials in their dealings with ethics commissions. They blame the commission for doing its job, and they make decisions that prevent the commission from doing its job well, as if hampering the commission's work was in the public interest.

These elected officials are blinded by the enforcement side of government ethics and make little effort to understand the program as a whole and the role of enforcement in the program. Why? Out of laziness, yes, and lack of interest. And they are blinded by their resentment of anyone telling them what to do.

As the ethics board says at the beginning of its letter to the editor, "The Board of Ethics did not write the Code of Ethics." Penalizing the board for fulfilling its role in the community is at best childish, at worst an attempt to protect oneself and one's colleagues. It is putting one's personal interest ahead of the public interest.

The Ways of Hampering
Hampering ethics commissions takes many forms:  budget cuts, personal attacks, ethics code amendments, political appointments, not appointing anyone, suing the ethics commission and its members, accusing the commission of leading a political witchhunt and not being accountable to anyone, and misrepresenting what the commission does and what it has or has not done.

Each of these actions are essentially ethics violations, but violations that cannot be enforced. That's why they're so popular. They are a form of bullying, destruction rather than doing what's best for the community, misuse of power instead of service to the city.

Robert Wechsler
Director of Research, City Ethics