He called it an honest mistake, but the mayor and corporation counsel — as well as the city’s ethics board — said he should have known better.
Alderman Brad Will (D-Ward 3) has been sanctioned by the Board of Ethics for casting a series of votes related to a project that he was paid to work on. On Oct. 7, the five-member board issued a ruling which found Will had violated a section of the city’s ethics law dealing with conflicts of interest. The board levied a $1,000 fine against the alderman and directed Common Council President James Noble to issue a written reprimand.
At issue is Will’s participation in a series of discussions and votes related to the Pike Plan canopy in Uptown Kingston. The discussions took place during meetings of the council’s Finance Committee and the full council.
Will, an architect, worked as a subcontractor on the plans for a major overhaul of the canopy and other modifications along portions Wall and North Front streets. Since it was completed in 2012, business owners have complained about drainage, shoddy workmanship and other issues.
In 2013, Mayor Shayne Gallo unilaterally engaged the services of local architect Joseph Hurwitz to detail shortcomings in the design and construction of the canopy. The council later authorized hiring an engineering firm for $45,000 to conduct a more detailed examination that Gallo has called a preliminary step towards eventual legal action. Between February and December of 2014, Will participated in discussions and cast votes against paying Hurwitz (who was hired without necessary authorization from the council) and carrying out the subsequent investigation.
The ethics complaint against Will was brought by two members of the Pike Plan Commission, which oversees the canopy, and Ward 3 resident Andy Champ-Doran, who is running for Will’s council seat on the Independence Party line. The board’s decision comes after a closed-door hearing last month where the board took testimony from the complainants, James Noble and city Corporation Counsel Andrew Zweben. Will did not testify at the hearing.
“Will knowingly participated in discussions and cast votes on matters relating to the Pike Plan, though he knew that the matters under review might affect him and his business, both from a pecuniary perspective and reputationally,” the board wrote in its findings.
Rookie mistake, says Will
In an interview at his attorney’s office on Friday, Oct. 9, Will acknowledged that he had erred in not recusing himself from the Pike Plan discussions. But he characterized his participation as an honest mistake by a rookie lawmaker. Will said that he did not realize that voting on Pike Plan issues violated the ethics code until December 2014, when Noble advised him that he should recuse himself. According to the board’s findings, Noble testified that he had in fact asked Will to participate in some of the discussions because he was familiar with the canopy restoration project. Will’s attorney, Ronald Pordy, also noted that Will’s votes never affected the outcome of a decision but were cast “on principle.”
“One of these votes was eight-to-one and Brad was the only no vote,” said Pordy. “Why would he knowingly violate the ethics code by voting knowing that it was going to pass regardless?”
Pordy also questioned why Zweben, who sits in on council meetings to offer legal advice, never advised Will that his participation violated the ethics law. Pordy said that Zweben testified at the hearing that he did not feel it was his place to advise the freshman lawmaker. Pordy also noted that Champ-Doran attended many of the meetings in question, but did not bring the ethics complaint until election season.
“Some people saw a political opportunity to embarrass Brad,” said Pordy. “They gave him the rope to hang himself.”
In a list of recommendations filed along with their decision, the ethics board wrote that Zweben, Noble and other council members should have recognized the conflict of interest and advised Will that he was in violation of the code. But, they said, the oversight did not absolve Will of his responsibility to understand and follow the law. The board noted that Will must have had some knowledge of the ethics code because he had filed a complaint against Gallo early in his tenure on the council.
In January 2014, the month he took his council seat, Will sent a letter to Noble and the ethics board questioning whether Gallo’s appointment of attorney George Redder as counsel to the Kingston Local Development Corporation violated a section of the ethics law which forbids city employees from hiring of giving contracts to anyone they have had recent business dealings with. Gallo, an attorney, was listed on letterhead and office signage as “of counsel” at Redder’s firm until November 2013 — the month Gallo appointed him to the KLDC post. The ethics board declined to hold a hearing, call witnesses or engage legal counsel before declaring Will’s complaint against Gallo “baseless.”
“Within 30 days of filing this ethics complaint, Will began actively participating in discussions … concerning the Pike Plan,” the board noted in its findings.
Strengthen code, says Gallo
Gallo rejected the argument that Zweben should have warned off Will from Pike Plan votes. He added that the case pointed to the need for tougher ethics provisions, including a requirement for licensed professionals to list their clients on mandatory ethics disclosure forms.
“This case shows that the system is working,” said Gallo who will leave office on Dec. 31. “But the next council should take a serious look at the ethics law and how it can be improved.”
In addition to its findings regarding Will, the board filed a series of recommendations for improvements to the ethics watchdog process. They include in depth ethics training for new lawmakers and a meeting between council members and the ethics board to discuss changes to the law. The board also recommended that members be assigned to staggered four year terms. Currently, the board is appointed by and serves at the pleasure of the mayor.