Mayor Yepsen Steps Up To ZBA Integrity Issue

As noted in an earlier blog Gary Hasbrouk, who sits on the Zoning Board of Appeals, was seen drinking with Sonny Bonacio and attorney Michael Toohey following the meeting in which they had applied to the ZBA for variances for Moore Hall.

A neighbor reports that he spoke to Mayor Yepsen about the issue of Gary  Hasbrouk’s lack of impartiality.  The Mayor told him that the City Attorneys had requested that Mr. Hasbrouk go on the record as to why he should or should not recuse  himself from voting on the Moore Hall variances.  Mayor Yepsen told our neighbor that while she had no authority to mandate that Mr. Hasbrouk abstain from the vote, she felt “adamantly” that he should abstain.


6 thoughts on “Mayor Yepsen Steps Up To ZBA Integrity Issue”

  1. When it comes to decisions about when a city officer or employee should recuse, or remove himself from discussions and decisions about a matter, it’s important to take a look at the city’s ethics code. There are specific actions and relationships that are prohibited by the code. However, being friendly with someone who has official business before a city department or board, while it might raise questions, is not by itself one of those.

    When I was a member of the ethics board, we occasionally received requests for advisory opinions from officials who thought they might need to recuse themselves from votes that involved friends or neighbors. Our position was that, especially in a small city, it would be hard for a public official not to make a decision now and then that might benefit a friend. A new pocket park in the neighborhood maybe. New sidewalks and streetlights. Recusal in those cases, likely to occur often, could seriously hamper the operation of the city council and city boards. We advised that recusal should occur only in those instances when a vote would specifically violate the code, a key provision of which is that, “A City officer or employee shall not use his or her official position or office, or take or fail to take any action, in a manner which he or she knows, or has reason to know, may result in a personal financial benefit” for himself, his employer, relatives, a client, or a business in which he or a relative is a director or officer. There are other provisions that apply. City officials are required to file annual disclosure statements, so that potential conflicts can be identified.

    My fellow ethics board members and I went on to discuss the difference between conflict of interest and bias. It’s one thing for an official, the official’s relative or business connection to have a financial stake in the outcome of a matter before the official. It’s another for the official to make decisions reflecting a point of view. We elect our council members based on their outlook on important issues. When they’re in office, we expect them to hold true to their “bias” when voting on matters that come before them. Similarly, we point out the importance of electing a mayor who will appoint the “right” people to serve on our land use boards. To the extent that applicable laws are open to interpretation (now there’s a good topic), we learn that some board members vote consistently on one side, some on the other, reflecting their points of view on development. No surprise.

    There is another important part of our ethics code. “Every City officer and employee shall endeavor to pursue a course of conduct consistent with the spirit of this chapter as well as the actual provisions and strive to act so as not to raise suspicion among the public that he or she is likely to be engaged in activities that are in violation of his or her trust.”

    Some might interpret seeing a board member having a drink with someone whose application is before the board as an unacceptable appearance of conflict. Here again, however, the ethics code focuses on financial conflict. The board member shouldn’t suggest that the developer hire his son. But is it a violation of ethics for an applicant to sit with him and watch the game, let alone bend his ear about the fine points of an application? Lobbying is a time-honored tradition in government. There surely are times when lobbying crosses the line, when money or favors change hands. But we expect our elected officials to meet with anyone having an interest in matters on their agendas. And we aren’t surprised when a council member elected for a certain point of view meets regularly on a current topic with people or organizations who share that perspective. Should a member of a land use board be held to different standards?

    If a board member has a question about recusal, he or she should request an advisory opinion from the ethics board. A member of the public curious about the financial connections of a board member could seek to review the disclosure statement on file with the city attorney. If the records contain information indicating a potential conflict of interest, a member of the public can submit a referral form to the ethics board, who might decide to conduct an inquiry.


  2. re·cuse
    North American
    verb: recuse; 3rd person present: recuses; past tense: recused; past participle: recused; gerund or present participle: recusing

    challenge (a judge, prosecutor, or juror) as unqualified to perform legal duties because of a possible conflict of interest or lack of impartiality.
    Above is the common usage for recuse. This one includes “Lack of Impartiality” as distinguished from “conflict of interest.” I am sorry that Rick and apparently the Ethics Board has chosen to use such a highly restrictive approach to their standard for recusing from a board decision. While impartiality is obviously more difficult to define, for many of us it still has resonance. If someone comes before me who I consider a friend then in the interest of fairness to all parties concerned, I would want to recuse myself.
    Given the history of cronyism in this city and on our boards, I can understand the appeal of limiting the issue to a direct financial interest. It is definitely a cleaner definition to enforce but simple is not always better.


  3. Hi John,
    If you could write a short posting asking your blog readers’ to take my student’s survey, she would be most appreciative. Bob

    My student Rachel Thomeer is conducting a short survey on political engagement. Your responses are confidential and the survey should take 2-3 minutes to complete. Please share with your politically engaged Saratoga friends. Thank you for your time.


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