Local ethics law draws scrutiny

Bill McKenna

Bill McKenna

A case involving a member of the Woodstock Town Board has drawn attention to the local ethics law, which seeks to establish standards of conduct for town officers, employees, and consultants, and to procedures followed by the volunteer board that administers and enforces the statute.

The recent scrutiny follows councilman Bill McKenna’s disclosure at the March 12 meeting of the Town Board that the Ethics Board had requested him to appear on March 18 to respond to a complaint alleging that he had violated one or more provisions of the ethics law, which the town adopted in 2000.

The written summons to appear before the five-member ethics panel illustrated a deficiency in the law, said McKenna at the meeting and in subsequent interviews, because it did not specify the nature of the complaint against him. Perhaps the law should be amended so that people who were accused of an offense were informed of the charge they were facing before they were questioned by the board, he said.

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The complaint relates to appearances by McKenna — and, possibly, additional Town Board members who have yet to be identified — at meetings of other town agencies, reportedly the Planning Board and the Zoning Board of Appeals. Two provisions of the ethics law prohibit such appearances by town officers or employees under certain circumstances, such as the representation of a private interest or the inducement of another official to violate the ethics statute. [See related letters in the Feedback section of this issue.]

Overlying the current case is the broader issue of secrecy. With few exceptions the Ethics Board conducts its business in private, typically to preserve the anonymity of complainants and defendants during its investigation of a complaint. If, after an investigation and a series of due-process steps including a hearing, the board finds that a violation of the law has occurred, it may recommend appropriate disciplinary actions to the Town Board, which is authorized to impose such sanctions.

The particulars of the McKenna case raise two questions: whether, as the councilman suggests, flaws in the ethics law undermine the rights of the accused and should be corrected; and whether the Ethics Board has been overzealous in its pursuit of secrecy.

On the first question, a cursory review by Woodstock Times of the local ethics law — and of Article 3 of the state Administrative Procedure Act, which complements and informs the local law — found no provision directing the Ethics Board to omit the specific charge when it notifies individuals that they are the subject of a complaint. (As noted, the review of the law was cursory and is subject to corroboration by a legal authority.)

The Town Board is evaluating at least one proposed amendment to the ethics law, while the Ethics Board is reportedly preparing others for its consideration. Whether any of the proposed changes relate to notifying defendants about the charges lodged against them could not be determined at press time, as attempts to reach two members of the ethics panel for comment were unsuccessful.

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