making local government more ethical

Partisan Nomination of Ethics Commission Members

I was reminded today that Sen. Arlen Specter, who recently switched from the Republican party to the Democratic party, voted against Elena Kagan's appointment as solicitor-general. He now appears likely to support her appointment to the Supreme Court. This raised the issue in my mind:  is it ever right for an elected official to vote on an appointment on purely partisan grounds?

Not surprisingly, the same issue arose this week at the local level, in North Greenbush, New York, a town of 11,000 near Albany. And the appointment involves an ethics commission, turning the question into:  should EC appointments be done on a partisan basis?

According to a post in the North Greenbush Pipeline blog yesterday, when a minority party member of the town board moved a name for appointment to the ethics board (for a post that had been empty for five months), a member of the majority party moved another name for appointment, the name of someone who is also affiliated with the minority party. This is the second time this was done; the last person resigned soon after being appointed).

The situation looks worse when you consider that a complaint has been filed against a town board member of the majority party. The blogger writes that the ethics board "will likely become a GOP tool Thursday night rather than a somewhat fair and balanced broker of political disputes." Appearing partisan and unfair is the worst thing that can happen to an ethics board.

One problem is the town's ethics code (click and select Ch. 13), which only prevents current party chairs from serving (a former party chair is one of the board's two current members). The enforcement provisions are seriously deficient in several other respects.

But let me focus on the question, Should the town board members nominate and vote on ethics board members on a partisan basis? The problem here is that both parties believe this is perfectly okay. The minority party believes it has the right to nominate one of the three members, to have its representative on the board. The majority party believes it has the right to nominate all three members, as long as one of them has registered as a member of the minority party. In other words, it believes it has the right to have three representatives on the board.

The minority party nominee might be perfectly capable, and even without any history of party involvement, and the majority party would still likely put up its own nominee. In fact, the same thing happened in March, at the county level, according to another Pipeline blog post (the nominee was none other than the North Greenbush town board member against whom an ethics complaint has been filed).

By taking this position, the town board members are essentially saying that the interests of the party are more important than the public interest in having an ethics board that appears, and hopefully is, fair and impartial. If town board members do not feel that ethics board members must appear fair and impartial, then it's hard to believe they would feel these qualities are important on any board in their town. No ethics code is going to make this a violation, of course, but this sort of conduct sends a message to town residents that the public interest is not a concern of their town board (at least if anyone explains to them what is going on).

There is, of course, an easy solution: take the ethics board nomination process out of the hands of town officials. This is what the City Ethics Model Code recommends, and it is the only way to ensure that the decisions of an ethics board will be respected by town residents.

Robert Wechsler
Director of Research, City Ethics