Is the boss here?

Ancram highway super, trying to find fill-in, trips over new law

ANCRAM–The town’s Board of Ethics has found that Highway Superintendent James MacArthur violated the local Ethics Law by appointing his brother Robert to serve as highway boss when he took a vacation in late March of this year.

The finding by the Ethics Board, which became public this month, and the circumstances surrounding it were the subject of discussion at the July 21 Town Board meeting.

Superintendent MacArthur, who is directly elected by town voters, said at the meeting that he never used to take a vacation at all, but started to take them after getting re-married about four years ago. When he began taking time off, no one was designated as the person in charge during his absence, and though he would leave instructions for employees about work he wanted to see done by the time he returned, much of the work would not be done, he told the board.

In an effort to change that this year, Mr. MacArthur, who has been the highway superintendent for nearly 14 years, appointed his brother as deputy superintendent to fill his shoes for the two weeks he would be gone and had him sworn in by a town justice. Robert MacArthur previously worked for the Highway Department and was qualified for the job, according to the highway superintendent.

The plan worked “pretty good the first week,” he was gone, said Mr. MacArthur, but after the appointment came under criticism by residents, Robert MacArthur resigned and the highway superintendent returned from vacation a week early to find two members of his crew “standing around with their hands in their pockets,” though they were supposed to have been on the job for an hour, Mr. MacArthur said.

“They say I violated the ethics law for nepotism, and I suppose that is true, but deputy highway superintendent is not a paid job. I can appoint anybody my deputy,” Mr. MacArthur explained.

He said the purpose of having a deputy superintendent is in case something happens to the highway superintendent and someone is needed to sign vouchers and certify payroll.

In this instance, Mr. MacArthur said for taking on his job during his absence he was going to pay his brother the same $18.50/hour that all Highway Department employees make. Once Mr. MacArthur came back from vacation, the deputy superintendent would again to be an unpaid position, he said.

The Ethics Board took up the case after receiving a written complaint signed by Roger Smith, April 2.

The board found that Mr. MacArthur appointed his brother and had him sworn in “without having fulfilled the required prior notice, permissions and clearance from the Town Board” to make the appointment or authorization for the rate of pay.

Because Mr. MacArthur rescinded the appointment and his brother resigned, the “primary legal and ethical infraction… was corrected,” said the decision, which went on to recommend that the draft of the new Highway Employee Handbook be reviewed and finalized as soon as possible, and that a clear and concise job description for highway superintendent be established.

This is the second decision handed down under the new Ethics Law adopted last November. The first involved Planning Board member Terry Boyles, who did some excavation work on a parcel owned by a person who later applied to the Planning Board for a subdivision of the same parcel. The Ethics Board recommended that Mr. Boyles recuse himself from voting on the subdivision to avoid the appearance of a conflict of interest. A majority of Town Board members agreed and supported the decision that if he did not voluntarily recuse himself, he should be suspended from participating in the vote.

“Some people thought it was for political reasons that I gave Rob a job so he could take over when I get ready to retire. I could care less who replaces me. I just hope it’s the right person for the job,” Mr.  MacArthur said at the meeting.

Town Supervisor Art Bassin noted that “the Ethics Law doesn’t say you can’t appoint a relative. It says that before you do, you have to clear it with the Town Board and the Ethics Board and get a waiver.” He added that “had we followed the right procedure” Mr. MacArthur’s actions would not have been an ethical violation.

“In a town our size, we are likely to have these issues. We have a judge and a court clerk who are married, but it’s okay because the judge did not appoint the court clerk,” said the supervisor, noting that the MacArthur case was “a learning experience.” He thanked the highway superintendent for his comments.

Mr. MacArthur then joked that he was now trying to convince his mother to become his deputy.

To contact Diane Valden email .

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