A Victory On Ethics

This city has had an ethics code whose vagueness has allowed for abuse.  The Times Union exposed the fact that William Moore, who chairs the city’s Zoning Board of Appeals, and Tom Lewis, who for years sat on the city’s Planning Board, had their homes built by Sonny Bonacio who frequently came before their boards with projects needing approvals. 

The city’s Ethics Board was forced by a complaint to address this. It ruled that Mr. Lewis should have disclosed  his relationship with Bonacio but not recuse himself.  In the case of Moore, they ruled that since Bonacio had not been before the ZBA at the time the house was built, there was no problem.

This example is emblematic of the weakness of the city’s ethics code as it applies to land use boards and of the quality of oversight of the Ethics Board itself.

A number of people, myself included, worked with Commissioner Mathiesen to amend the city’s ethics code to create more rigorous protections for the community . 

As you will see if you read the recently adopted new standards, it is hard to understand why anyone would oppose these and why the city’s boards operated with looser standards for so long.

In fact, true to their history, the Ethics Board sent a memo to the City Council opposing the adoption of the amendment.  They argued that the proposed changes were too narrow and that any amendment to the city’s ethics code should cover all of city government.  They also claimed that the current city code covered most of this and made the changes redundant.  They said they were working on their own language for refining the Ethics Code. 

During the discussion of the amendment members of the Council expressed some concerns but Commissioner Mathiesen did a great job of both addressing the concerns raised and in advocating that there be no further delay in adoption.  

The amendment passed unanimously.  I think all the members of the council deserve praise for their action.  I would like to especially acknowledge Commissioner Mathiesen, though.  He worked very hard on this.  He actually attended several meetings of the Ethics Board unsuccessfully seeking their support.  He met with most of his colleagues to solicit their concerns and incorporated a number of these into the final version.  He also met with Jerry Luhn, Geoff Bornemann, and myself on a number of occasions to work out the best language.  Chris has been a great Commissioner and I know that many of us will miss him when he retires from the Council in December.

The city ethics code now spells out that there is a window of a year covering the relationship between applicants and all land use board members.  If a board member was employed by the applicant (or homeowner) or someone representing the applicant , or has been the recipient of goods or services worth $2000.00 or more, or has received a gift(s) worth in aggregate more than $75.00, or the member has made an investment worth more than $1,000.00 with the applicant (or homeowner) the board member must recuse themselves.

If the board member owns property within 100 feet of an affected project they must recuse themselves.

If the board member has received a gift of any value since the filing of the application they must recuse themselves.

If a member of the board member’s family is employed by the applicant/homeowner they must recuse themselves.

If the member of the board is employed by an institution financing the project they must recuse themselves.

Here is the final language that was adopted.

 

13-3 S.  Due to the unique nature of their positions, the following standards apply to members of the City’s three land use boards (Planning Board, Zoning Board of Appeals, Design Review Commission)

 

  1.  Required Recusal   A member of a City land use board must publicly disclose and recuse from acting on a particular manner if:
  1. During any time in the 12 months preceding the filing of an application for an action being heard before that member’s board, the member has been employed by the applicant or the relevant property owner OR the member has been the recipient of goods or services of the applicant or the property owner having an aggregate value greater than $2,000 OR the member has received a gift having an aggregate value of more than $75 OR the member is  or has been employed by the applicant or the property owner or professionals representing the applicant or the property owner OR the member has made an investment of any kind of a value greater than $1,000 with the applicant or the property owner.
  2. The member has received a gift on behalf of the applicant or the property owner of any value since the filing of the application for an action to be heard by that member’s board.
  3. The member has any financial investment in the project associated directly with the matter being heard by that member’s board.
  4. The member owns property lying within 100 feet of the property that is the subject of the application.
  5. The member has family members currently employed by the applicant or the property owner.
  6. The member is an officer of a financial institution that will be financing the project that is the subject of the application before the member’s board.
  7.  
  1. Required Disclosure   A member of a City land use board must publicly disclose if:
  1. The member was employed by any of the professionals representing the applicant or the property owner prior to the 12 month period as described in 13-3 S (1) (a).
  2. The member has had any ex parte communication regarding the application.  Relevant information to be disclosed shall include the name of the person involved in the communication and the substance of information given or received.
  3. The member owns property lying within 500 feet of the property that is the subject of the application.
  4. The member is an officer or board member of an organization that is submitting a comment on the application.
  5. The board member has a close relationship with the applicant or the relevant property owner.
  6.  
  1. Recommended Standards
  1. Members should not discuss pending applications with applicants or their agents outside of open meetings.
  2. Public comments and interactions with the news media should be limited in scope and presented by board chairs or City staff.
  3. Former land use board members should not become employed by applicants who have appeared before their board within 12 months of that member’s departure from board service.
  4.  
  1. The requirements enumerated in paragraph (1) and (2) are in addition to board members’ responsibility to use their judgment in deciding to recuse or disclose for any other valid reason.

 

 

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