A former challenger to Kingston Mayor Steve Noble has filed a formal complaint alleging that his controversial plan to appoint his wife Julie to a senior position in the Department of Public Works violates the city’s ethics law.
Ellen DiFalco, who ran on the GOP line against Democrat Noble in last year’s election, called in a statement Wednesday, Feb. 19 the proposal to provisionally appoint Julie Noble to the newly created position of Deputy Superintendent for Environmental Services “an obvious abuse of power and nepotism.”
DiFalco’s complaint cites two sections of the city’s ethics code. One prohibits city officials from taking any action which would result in a “personal financial benefit” to a family member. The second allegation charges Noble with violating another section of the code covering “the appearance of impropriety.”
The complaint will be heard by the city’s four-member Ethics Board. Separately from DiFalco’s complaint, city Corporation Counsel Kevin Bryant has appealed to the state Attorney General’s Office for guidance on potential ethics issues. In the letter requesting an advisory opinion, Bryant wrote that the city’s current position is that the situation does not pose a conflict as long as Noble recuses himself from the appointment process and leaves it entirely in the hands of the council.
“While we believe that appropriate and necessary provisions have been made to avoid a conflict of interest we believe that special attention and scrutiny of this matter is warranted in order to maintain public confidence in government,” Bryant wrote.
Noble’s plan, announced earlier this month, would fold the Parks & Recreation Department (from which longtime Superintendent Kevin Gilfeather plans to retire in April) into the DPW under the overall control of DPW Superintendent Ed Norman.
Julie Noble, who currently works in Parks & Rec as a sustainability coordinator, would be appointed to the deputy superintendent’s post. In that role she would fulfill the traditional duties of the parks and recreation superintendent as well as oversee the agency’s Sanitation Division and recycling program. If appointed, Julie Noble’s annual salary would rise from its current $53,628 to $73,185.
Steve Noble said that the merger would create efficiencies in the allocation of labor and equipment and clear up confusion about which agency is responsible for maintaining the city’s growing portfolio of open space.
The mayor has also defended his decision to appoint his wife to a senior post pointing to her record of service and accomplishment in Parks & Rec, where she has been employed full-time since 2007. Noble also pointed to his wife’s service as coordinator of the city’s Climate Smart Community program and service as chair of the volunteer Conservation Advisory Council. Noble added that his wife’s appointment would be provisional under state civil service rules, meaning that the job would remain open to other applicants and awarded permanently only after a testing and selection process.
But Noble’s plan led to a rare public dispute between members of the Common Council last week when Alderwoman Michelle Hirsch (D-Ward 9) called on Council President Andrea Shaut to recuse herself from further deliberations on the proposal. Shaut is dating DPW Chief Norman, something Hirsch said represented a clear conflict of interest. Shaut fired back, accusing Hirsch of using the issue to shift focus away from the more substantive conflict posed by Noble promoting his wife and boosting his own household income through his reorganization plan. Shaut noted that as council president, she does not cast a vote except in the rare case of a tie on the nine-member council. Shaut added that nothing in Noble’s proposal would increase Norman’s salary and that her only role in the process was to ensure a thorough vetting of the plan by appropriate council committees.
On February 13, however, Shaut announced that she would recuse herself from the deliberations on the proposal. Shaut said that she was stepping back, despite the fact that she was not legally required to do so, based on a legal opinion obtained from the New York Conference of Mayors and her reading of the city’s ethics code. Shaut said that the code did not cover dating relationships where the parties do not cohabitate.
“I am not legally required to recuse myself,” wrote Shaut. “Nevertheless, I believe that public officials, when possible, should steer clear of actions that could create an appearance of impropriety which may undermine the public’s trust.”