GERMANTOWN—Late last month the Town Board held a public hearing on a proposed ethics law, Local Law No. 3 of 2019. Unlike many other town meetings, it was standing room only at that July 23 hearing. Many of the speakers commended the board for their efforts to put an ethics law in place. But parts of the 11-page document struck a nerve for other town residents.
Jaia Orient, speaking on behalf of herself and her husband, Joshua Orient, pointed out their concerns with Section 9 B & C which reads:
Recusal and Abstention
B. No town member may participate in any decision or take any official action with respect to any proposed project before the board when the board member has already expressed opposition to the proposed project and his or her ability to make an impartial judgment solely in the public interest is compromised by prejudice or bias about the project. Even the appearance of impropriety should be avoided in order to maintain public confidence in government.
C. A neighbor’s opposition to a proposed project creates the appearance of partiality and bias which requires the individual, as member of the Town Planning Board or Zoning Board of Appeals, to promptly recuse himself or herself from participating or action on an application pertaining to the project.
To B of this section, Jaia Orient said, “It’s curious that there is only a violation if the person is against something, but not if the person is for it.”
Pamela Wallace, who spoke next, agreed with Mrs. Orient but added that Section 10 contradicts Section 9, which says that disclosure, recusal and abstention would not be required if it affects “all residents or taxpayers of the town… or… the general public.”
Ms. Wallace asked who’d written the proposed law and was told by the board that the town Justice, Wendy Nack-Lawlor, had.
“Oh, then nobody needs to be recused. Everyone is exempt,” Ms. Wallace said.
In addition Ms. Orient and Ms. Wallace were also concerned with Section 27D, which proposes that any town officer or employee found guilty of violating the law could face a fine of $250 and may be subject to imprisonment, “and to then potentially make them financially liable if they happen to be serving the town on a board,” said Mrs. Orient.
Ms. Wallace asked, “Who would ever want to serve on a board if you think you could be sued, be financially responsible, you may have to pay a fine or serve time in prison?”
Many of those present appeared to support the issues raised. Among the speakers were Kaare Christian and Tony Albino, both of whom are on the Waterfront Committee. Mr. Christian, who is a candidate for Town Board, thanked the board for its consideration of the proposed law. But added that one of the things that needs to be considered about a code of ethics is: “How does this apply to the different areas of the town?”
The Town Board would be responsible for appointing and overseeing a Board of Ethics, which would “serve without compensation and at the pleasure of the Town Board.” This being the case, how would the law apply to members of the Town Board, Mr. Christian asked.
He offered several suggestions as to how this issue could be addressed. One would be for people on the board of ethics to be installed for a specific term so they would not be “beholden to Town Board members.” Mr. Christian said this would “give them a layer of insulation so that they can make an ethical call with respect to the Town Board and not worry about being removed.”
To questions for the board raised by members of the audience, town Supervisor Robert Beaury said, “What I’d rather do tonight is take in all the information and address all the issues.”
Tony Albino, the last person to come to the podium, thanked the board but said of the proposed law, “We can all agree, clearly, this has serious flaws the way it stands now” and said he did not believe it would withstand judicial review.
Ms. Wallace’s last comment was even more blunt. “This law terrifies me,” she said.
The entire document can be viewed on the Germantown website www.germantownny.org under code of ethics. Questions and what, if any, changes the board decides to make, will be addressed at the next public hearing August 13 at 6:30 p.m., which will be followed by the Town Board meeting at 7 p.m.