Friday, March 14, 2014

Right Man, Wrong Job by Jack Conway

This morning the Town Board held a special meeting to make appointments to the Board of Ethics, authorize the settlement of an employment discrimination suit against the Supervisor, accept two resignations and resolve several other matters.  Since the next board meeting is only three business days away, the timing of the special meeting raised eyebrows.  The two primary differences between an 8:45 a.m. special meeting and a 7:00 p.m. regular meeting are that fewer residents can attend and there is no public comment period.  Normally, special meetings are called to address time sensitive matters but a number of today’s resolutions could have waited until Wednesday.  Under these circumstances it’s hard not to draw the conclusion that the board called this meeting to conduct important business under the radar with as little public attention as possible.  One action taken by the board deserves special mention.  The comments below would have been presented as a public comment at the meeting but since that opportunity was not made available, I offer them here.

The appointment of Ed Gilbert to the Board of Ethics is a serious error in judgment on the part of Supervisor Langley.  This is not a commentary on Ed’s competence as a person; I like and respect him and he has made a substantive contribution to the political debate in this town.  But he has done so as an aggressively partisan participant; his appointment represents the politicization of a board that can only be effective if its members are not perceived as advocates for either political party.  More importantly, this appointment will discourage town employees from filing legitimate complaints because they know the Supervisor’s personal political bodyguard is waiting for them if they decide to contest actions taken by a member of the political majority.

The two most important attributes of a member of the Board of Ethics are the abilities to be impartial and maintain the confidentiality of people who file complaints.  If you took a survey of town employees and asked them if Ed Gilbert would be impartial and maintain confidentiality if a complaint is filed against the Supervisor or member of the majority, how many do you think would answer ‘Yes?’  Ten percent?  Twenty percent?  Nobody?  I’m not saying Ed Gilbert won’t be fair and maintain confidentiality but in the world of ethics, perception is as important as reality and the perception guaranteed by this appointment is that the Board of Ethics is stacked to protect the majority.  The message?  Whistleblowers will not be tolerated.

Since this appointment is now fait accompli, three things should happen immediately.  First, a written job description for the position of Deputy Supervisor should be posted on the town website.  This job includes financial compensation for the first time in years and since it is illegal for a member of the Board of Ethics to be compensated for any work related to that board, it is imperative that the public be informed of the line between Ed’s responsibilities as Deputy Supervisor and his work on this board.  Second, he should immediately cease and desist from posting partisan commentary on blogs, in the Advertiser or any other public organ.  This includes the negative, underhanded ‘Anonymous’ work that is often attributed to him.

Third, and most importantly, he must immediately terminate his role as political and policy advisor to the Supervisor and new majority.  Every piece of advice he gives sets up a potential conflict of interest.  Whether it concerns the employment status of an individual, a decision on a specific project or broader policy advice his input can influence issues that may come before him as a member of the Board of Ethics.  It is unseemly and intimidating to town employees for a member of the Board of Ethics to be seen walking in and out of the Supervisor’s office on a regular basis.  He must immediately adopt a non-partisan approach to local politics.  The letter of the Code of Ethics states that members of that board cannot sit on political committees; the spirit of that clause suggests they should not engage in any politics of a partisan nature. 

The fundamental concern of the Board of Ethics is to monitor and eliminate conflicts of interest.  The appointment of an aggressively partisan political operative, one who has twice run for office and recently played a key role in getting the new majority into a position of power, is an inherent conflict of interest since the hallmark of a Board of Ethics is the fairness that comes from people who adopt an independent stance in relation to town employees and elected officials.  It also risks the perception that every statement, promise and action taken by the majority on the subject of ethics has been a political ploy made safe by the knowledge that a mechanism could be implemented that guarantees their protection by discouraging town employees from filing complaints. 

Ed Gilbert is in position to make numerous positive contributions to the governance of this town and I wish him well in those endeavors.  But he has chosen a partisan path and on this basis his appointment to the Board of Ethics should be reconsidered and withdrawn.