Woodstock Town Board members and their critics on August 13 voiced clashing views on a proposed amendment to the local ethics law and, more pointedly, on recent actions by the Ethics Board, the volunteer panel that administers and enforces the statute.
The setting was a public hearing on proposed changes to various sections of the ethics law, including those covering political solicitation and the acceptance of gifts by town officers and employees. The focus of the ensuing fracas, however, was the section governing appearances by officers and employees before town agencies — the provision that, according to a June 26 finding by the Ethics Board, council members Cathy Magarelli and Bill McKenna violated when they attended a Planning Board meeting last year.
The Ethics Board ruled that Magarelli and McKenna had improperly represented a private interest, Cucina restaurant, in their appearance at an August 2012 planning session, thus violating the Appearances section of the law. Magarelli and McKenna not only disputed that finding, but also maintained that the ethics panel, by failing to offer them an opportunity to respond to the charge against them before it issued a ruling and recommended penalties, had itself violated the statute.
With town supervisor Jeremy Wilber and councilman Jay Wenk supporting Magarelli and McKenna and only councilman Ken Panza, among the board’s five members, endorsing the procedure followed by the Ethics Board, the council on July 9 declined to accept the ethics panel’s finding or to impose its recommended penalties, which included public apologies by Magarelli and McKenna. (See Woodstock Times, July 11, 2013.)
Debate on amendment
Against that backdrop, speakers at this week’s public hearing zeroed in on the proposal to liberalize the Appearances section of the law by allowing town officers or employees to attend and express their opinions at meetings of municipal boards and commissions. Magarelli and Wilber observed that elected officials, at the behest of their constituents, routinely attend such meetings and otherwise interact with other town officers and employees on matters of interest to Woodstock residents.
In a vigorous defense of her position, Magarelli took issue with the Ethics Board’s suggestion that council members could appear at agency meetings only if the supervisor asked them to attend on behalf of the town. Wilber had previously observed that the supervisor has no special authority to designate any official to represent the town.
“It is absurd to believe that, as an elected official, I need Jeremy’s permission to attend a meeting on an issue like smart meters or (a matter involving) the farm animal sanctuary,” Magarelli said, noting that she regularly attends meetings of various agencies as an acknowledged representative of the town. “I go to these meetings to listen, to observe, and to comment.” She added: “The Ethics Board do not follow the (proper) process. I did not violate any law.”
Councilman Jay Wenk expressed the harshest criticism of the Ethics Board’s performance in the recent case, deeming the panel’s finding “bogus” and reading an August 12 opinion by town attorney Rod Futerfas suggesting that the Ethics Board had failed to follow the prescribed procedure for notifying Magarelli and McKenna about the complaint involving them and offering them an opportunity to respond before taking final action.
While he was unprepared to recommend that the Town Board dismiss the members of the Ethics Board who participated in the recent investigation and finding, said Wenk, he viewed the panel as having “two strikes” against it, in the form of its misguided procedure and its refusal to meet with Town Board members to review the matter. Wenk also criticized Panza for allegedly deceiving the public about the Ethics Board’s performance in the case.