An ethics case involving two Woodstock Town Board members has depleted the ranks of the Ethics Board and raised lingering questions about matters such as due process, the rights and responsibilities of public officials, and the soundness of the local law at the heart of the case.
In a June 26, 2013, letter to the Town Board, the Ethics Board concluded a nearly five-month investigation by finding that councilman Bill McKenna and councilwoman Cathy Magarelli had violated the local ethics law by appearing at an August 30, 2012, meeting of the Planning Board involving the proposed expansion of Cucina restaurant. A complaint by a party who remains anonymous prompted the investigation.
Following the Town Board’s receipt of the letter, a majority of the council effectively rejected the finding by taking no action on the ethics panel’s conclusions, which included a recommendation that McKenna and Magarelli issue public apologies for the alleged infractions. Town supervisor Jeremy Wilber and councilman Jay Wenk expressed vocal support for their colleagues and criticism of the Ethics Board’s procedures.
The case remains, at least technically, in limbo, although no definitive action by the Town Board appears forthcoming. Lacking the support of the council, the three members of the Ethics Board who participated in the case have terminated their service on the volunteer panel. Teri Reynolds, the chair, declined to seek reappointment when her term expired at the end of 2013. Fran Breitkopf, the vice chair, resigned as of December 17, following the December 6 resignation of Toby Heilbrunn, the acting secretary.
As a result of the departures, the Ethics Board, which at full strength consists of five members, lacks the three-member quorum required for the panel to conduct business. The active members are Allison Dodd West, who recused herself from the case involving the Town Board members — a fifth seat on the panel was vacant at the time — and Neil Ratner, a relatively recent addition to the ethics unit. As of last week, no candidates had applied to fill the current vacancies.
Breitkopf, in her resignation letter and a recent interview, defended the Ethics Board’s actions in the case and protested the treatment of her panel by the Town Board majority, (which excluded councilman Ken Panza, who generally supported the Ethics Board). “Town Board members claim that the ‘process’ followed, (which) had been used successfully for the 13 years (in which) this law has existed, is ‘flawed,’” said Breitkopf in her letter. “The Town Board members who violated the law have attempted to redirect everyone’s attention from their violations to the ‘process’ used. Their personal dissatisfaction with the process doesn’t change the fact that they violated the ethics law.”
Said Heilbrunn in her letter of resignation, “I find I can no longer spend time going to Ethics Board meetings and be treated as badly as we have been in the past. I’m sure I can find more useful ways to spend my time.”
Background of case
In issuing its finding last June, the Ethics Board reported that its investigation had included interviews with witnesses and a review of the minutes of the Planning Board meeting in question. The evidence demonstrated, according to the panel, that McKenna and Magarelli had attended the planning session for the purpose of supporting “individuals who were directly involved in the particular matter before the Planning Board” — a reference to Cucina’s principals.
Provisions of Section 71-3 of the ethics law prohibit town officers or employees from representing any private interest before any town agency and from appearing before any agency except on their own behalf or that of the town. The ethics law and the minutes of the Planning Board meeting are posted on the town website, woodstockny.org, under the Laws and Minutes links, respectively.