The accomplishments of the volunteer members of the Ethics Commission are impressive, especially in the area of informing the County government and the public at large about the Ethics Code. They have nurtured a culture of ethical government through their publications and by providing 19 training sessions during the course of the year. They have spent considerable time with those County employees and officials who find themselves subject to financial disclosure requirements, making the process as clear and non-burdensome as possible while explaining the reason for requiring financial disclosure for some County jobs.
Other duties of the Ethics Commission include resolving complaints regarding Code violations (19), handling lobbyists’ registrations (4) and year-end disclosures (15), and issuing advisory opinions (20). Because advisory opinions help inquirers understand the law, the Annual Report usefully includes a brief description of the rationale of each advisory opinion.
The whole County � government employees and the public at large � benefits from the time and dedication the Ethics Commission gives on our behalf. They do not have an easy job; they have challenging and difficult decisions to make as they administer the law. We feel sure that their annual report, publications and information sessions will result in a County with an ever-stronger culture of ethical governance. Each of the volunteer members deserves our appreciation. The chairman, Bob Mueller, is to be particularly thanked for his thoughtful and energetic leadership of the Commission.
The first, already expressed to the Ethics Commission, is their opinion advising that there was no conflict with a member of their Commission working in the law firm of the counsel to their Commission.
The Commission, by its own admission, focused on one provision of the code, the misuse of the prestige of office, when considering this situation. They found no conflict because the member and counsel are both lawyers and lawyers disagree routinely, so the member’s votes wouldn’t be unduly influenced by counsel. They neglected to consider the controlling conflicts provision that prohibits the member from being on the Commission at all when she has a financial interest in an entity that is doing business with the Ethics Commission.
The member later resigned from the Commission. Nonetheless, the advisory opinion (9.13.07 #7-13) is incorrect and misleading, yet it stands as a precedent and guide to others in similar situations.
Ethics Matters believes the Commission simply made a mistake and needs to correct it. They should give serious consideration to withdrawing both of their misleading opinions regarding this conflicts situation.
Our second concern is the amount of time that is seems to be taking to conduct and complete the investigation, called for at last November’s meeting, into the purview of some of the subcommittees formed by the Public Works Advisory Board.
The issue is whether the members of any of these subcommittees should be required to make financial disclosure. The Ethics Code requires financial disclosure by members of certain committees “providing advice and/or recommendations regarding acquisition, zoning and/or designation of land” (emphasis added: taking sewer down Route 8 could arguably cause a change in designation of some lots from don’t perc/ unbuildable to lots receiving sewer/buildable). Our concern is that committees like these are often, by their nature, short-lived, so that by not accomplishing their investigation in a timely fashion, the Commission is not ensuring the transparency the public has a right to expect under the Ethics Law.