Ethical? Yes. But not very wise

Ethics panel says board members needlessly cast cloud over law

ANCRAM—An investigation by the town Board of Ethics found that four members of the Town Board did not engage in unethical behavior related to development and passage of the town’s new ridgeline protection law but they sure could have handled the process better.

After nearly two arduous years of Zoning Revision Committee draft formulation, public hearings and revisions, Ancram finally has its Ridgeline/Steep Slope Protection Regulation in place. The regulation, consistent with the town’s Comprehensive Plan, seeks to protect topographically prominent and scenically important ridgelines and steep slopes as part of a larger objective to maintain and protect the town’s rural scenic character.

The standards, guidelines and procedures established in the law are mandatory for new structures in major subdivisions and “strongly encouraged” for new structures in minor subdivisions—which was the main controversy in the often contentious public debate that concluded May 15.

The measure was unanimously adopted at the June 19 Town Board meeting, but not before the Board of Ethics rendered recommendations and findings resulting from an investigation into a complaint by Malcolm Stewart Kirk, who alleged ethical violations in connection with the development and enactment of the ridgeline law.

Mr. Kirk is the owner of ridgeline property designated for protection. In his April 26 complaint, Mr. Kirk alleged that Supervisor Art Bassin and Councilperson Chris Thomas had conflicts of interest associated with the law because they each owned plots of land initially included in the ridgeline ordinance. Mr. Kirk also alleged that Mr. Bassin and Councilperson Hugh Clark, who chairs the Zoning Revisions Committee (ZRC) responsible for crafting the law, “made inappropriate and possibly unethical bilateral decisions that were not fully disclosed publicly or to their fellow board or committee members and that those actions helped to establish a criteria that unfairly targets some citizens for inclusion while benefitting others by excluding their lands.” The allegations are part of the Board of Ethics ruling obtained by The Columbia Paper through a Freedom of Information Law request.

Though not named in the Kirk complaint, the Ethics Board noted in its report that Councilperson James Miller also owns property initially slated for ridgeline protection.

The Ethics Board wrote that because Mr. Bassin, Mr. Thomas and Mr. Miller did not disclose their inclusion on the list of ridgeline landowners and failed to follow procedures outlined in town Ethics Law, they “unnecessarily contributed to creating an air of suspicion and distrust of the Ridgeline Ordinance process.”

All four men should have immediately and properly disclosed land ownership facts to the Ethics Board so it could make a determination on whether recusal was recommended or required, the report said. Though Mr. Clark does not own ridgeline property, he was advised by Mr. Miller, who also served on the ZRC, that he did, according to the report.

The Ethics Board noted that had it been given the opportunity to rule in the case of Mr. Bassin’s ridgeline land, it would have concluded that Mr. Bassin had no conflict of interest because the same parcel was already under a protective development covenant administered by the Columbia County Land Conservancy.

“Instead, we are left with the impression that Mr. Bassin, Mr. Thomas and Mr. Miller reasoned the matter of their potential Conflict of Interest away themselves or amongst themselves,” said the report.

Mr. Bassin said this week that the development of the ridgeline/steep slope ordinance “was thorough, exhausting and emotional. In the end we came up with an ordinance that is quite effective and one we can build on in the future.”

The supervisor said that Mr. Kirk’s complaint was legitimate and agrees with the Ethics Board that it would have been better had he told the Ethics Board about the situation and asked for an opinion. But, he added, “I knew I couldn’t develop the property anyway,” and didn’t think he needed to seek the advice of the ethics panel.

Mr. Miller said that in his work on the committee the names of property owners affected had “no bearing on the ZRC decision—it did not make any difference.” In hindsight, he agreed he should have spoken to the Ethics Board. Mr. Miller said he is “comfortable” with the new ridgeline regulation and believes “it protects the town against having hillsides covered with houses.”

Mr. Thomas said by email: “Very early on I announced during a Town Board meeting that my property was in a ridgeline and that, although opposed to the proposed law, I did not mind that my property was included. I felt that the proposed law needed to be announced, by mail, to all property owners involved.”

Mr. Clark declined to comment.

The Town Board voted unanimously at the June meeting to adopt the regulation following an hour-long closed session during which the Ethics Board ruling was discussed. When the board returned to open session, Supervisor Bassin asked whether any board members wanted to recuse themselves before the vote. They all said no.

In its final observations, the Ethics Board wrote, “We are convinced that much of this lack of confidence and the present appearances of back-room decision-making could easily have been avoided. The lack of initial disclosure by the three Town Board members detailed in this report fueled this early and lingering lack of confidence. In the minds of many we have spoken with, the impression of heavy- handed politics and the lack of a wider, truly empowered decision-making body continue to undermine the confidence of a number of Ancram’s citizens in the way the Ridgeline Ordinance development has evolved.”

The board meets next July 17 at 7 p.m.

To contact Diane Valden email

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