[JK:I received this document from Mayor Yepsen. This was the statement she made at the beginning of her agenda on the Ethics Report at the Tuesday, July 19 meeting]
Comments by Mayor Joanne D. Yepsen
July 19, 2016
We received an advisory opinion from the Ethics Board last Friday. It was in response to a full review requested by me to the Ethics Board, which I made as soon as a potential conflict of interest was identified by me and the Hospital Foundation simultaneously. This advisory opinion recommends no disciplinary action.
I sincerely thank the Ethics Board for their efforts.
However, my attorneys and I respectfully disagree with this advisory opinion regarding section 13.3 of the Ethics Code. But I do accept it. We have many lessons learned and can benefit from their work.
Certainly I will guide my future actions accordingly, as I’m sure will my colleagues on this city council.
The mayor’s position is a part-time position paying $14,500 per year. It is, therefore, not unexpected that a person in this position will seek other outside employment.
I had a few brief and preliminary communications with the Saratoga Hospital Foundation It was at this very preliminary stage, with no specific work, no agreements or contract — verbal or in writing, and with no funds even close to changing hands, we both realized the potential for a conflict of interest.
I, therefore, went to the ethics board to ask for their opinion. Nearly simultaneously, there was a parallel and completely unrelated zoning application from the hospital in front of the city.
The Ethics Board suggested I recuse myself from an upcoming vote on the hospital’s proposal. I asked for their opinion and respected it. I recused myself from the related vote. (At the time, there was no definition for what constituted “doing business with the city” and no general assumption that this term included having a zoning application before the city. This came out of their advisory opinion, which I asked them to provide.)
It was never my intention to connect in any way any potential work with the Hospital Foundation and any proposals in front of the city.
The buck stops with me. However, I was going by the legal advice from the city attorney until such time I needed outside counsel.
As set forth in the June 10, 2016 submission by my attorneys – which I have copies of here this evening for council members and the public – we disagree with the Board’s interpretation of §13-3(I) of the Code as it relates to whether my discussions with the Hospital Foundation while Saratoga Hospital had a zoning amendment pending resulted in Code violation. The Board’s interpretation of §13-3 (I) is misplaced under the circumstances and is not aligned with the general ethical standards established under the General Municipal Law. In particular, the Board’s determination that submitting a zoning application is “doing business” with the City is misplaced. A reasonable interpretation of §13-3(I) clearly establishes you did not violate the City’s Code of Ethics solely by engaging in a dialogue with the Foundation over potential work unrelated to the Hospital’s application for zoning, especially given the fact you recused yourself from taking any action on the Hospital’s application to avoid even the appearance of a conflict. Also, it appears to us from the Board’s July 14, 2016 opinion that it did not even consider the arguments and analysis in our submission. The Board’s recent opinion does not refer to the submission or cite to the body of authoritative guidance cited.
Also, This advisory opinion by the Ethics Board is not just going to affect me. Their interpretation of “doing business with the city” will unfortunately make it difficult or nearly impossible for part-time employees and volunteers to serve the city, as it applied to them as well as full-time employees. Prior to this review and opinion issued no definition of doing business with the city existed.
Let’s focus on our lessons learned and the steps we need to take moving forward.
First: There have been more inquiries to the ethics board this year than ever before. That’s because our Ethics Board has been used as a political tool. This has to stop! They are a volunteer board which has put countless hours into reviewing multiple inquiries. They continue to do the best they can with a Code of Ethics that has much room for improvement, as we’ve come to learn.
Second: We need to make improvements to the city’s ethics code language, to clarify it, so there is little room for interpretation.
I will call for an independent exploration into what standard practice is on the state level. Modeling it, or improving it, makes sense to me. The policies we will then all need to respect and adhere to, will make it clear exactly what is acceptable. There are other members of this city council, and their spouses, who have been or potentially will be in similar situations regarding conflicts and potential conflicts of interest. Every part-time and full-time employee and city volunteer will clearly understand what is expected of them.
There will be No Room for political positioning!
I have appropriately not interacted with the Ethics Board during this important practice out of respect for their role.
Now, we must all move forward and be productive with the business of the City of Saratoga and our constituents.
And I will guide my future actions accordingly, as I’m sure will my colleagues on this city council.