Too often we use the “Albany excuse” when it comes to adopting meaningful ethics reform. As the United States attorney for the Southern District of New York, Preet Bharara, said, “[W]hat’s going on in New York State government lately is simultaneously heartbreaking, head-scratching and almost comic.” Even though we aren’t the ones laughing, why do we continue to wait for Albany to do something – anything – on the topic when we can at least start the process here at home? The waiting game needs to end today.
Bharara’s recent convictions of two of New York’s three most powerful political leaders isn’t so much about the misgivings of Sheldon Silver and Dean Skelos, but rather the culture of abuse and entitlement that has plagued our capital, as well as our state and country. While most of our animosity and distrust is focused on Albany when it comes to ethical issues, we sometimes fail to realize that we can also do our fair share on a municipal level to help regain the trust of the public.
Why not take this opportunity to institute sensible updates to Ulster County’s ethics code? Present local law fails to reasonably preclude — and could actually enable — county officers and employees from accepting an overabundance of questionable gifts, skirting campaign contribution limits through the use of the LLC loophole, abusing their offices and taxpayer funded items to freely self-promote their personal names and images (or “brand”), and awarding contracts to those vendors who unabashedly pay to play in county government.
As Ulster County’s watchdog and a general proponent of good government, I know that we can do better and actually lead the way. That’s why I prioritized a review of our ethics code and have collaborated with members of the Ulster County Legislature to foster tangible change. I applaud legislators Jonathan Heppner and Tracey Bartels for their steadfast dedication to this issue by promptly introducing legislation that would make our county’s gifting limitations among the strictest in the state. It may just be the beginning, but it’s a step in the right direction and lends optimism for the good work that lies ahead.
Local municipalities played a pivotal role in the larger ban on fracking in New York by prohibiting the practice in their own backyards. Our county takes enormous pride in being a proactive force to be reckoned with — a so-called “disrupter.” We were the first county to ban fracking brine, the first county to be net-carbon-neutral, and one of the first counties to tackle veteran homeless housing. Now we need to lead the way when it comes to real ethics reform. So why not disrupt the rotten status quo?
The writer is comptroller of Ulster County.