Friday, June 8, 2007

Mamaroneck Trustees Work on Disclosure Form for Village Officials

In its ongoing discussion of proposed changes to the village's ethics code, the Mamaroneck Board of Trustees (BOT), at its May 31 meeting, singled out areas of concern on which it wants to focus. Of these, financial disclosure was at the top of the list.

Trustee John Hofstetter, who has spearheaded the process of amending the code, emphasized that disclosure forms should be filed by village officials annually, not just when they first take office. He recommended that disclosure forms be filed within 60 days of the enactment of the new requirement and, thereafter, by June 30 of each year.

It was also suggested that the revised code make clear who has to file disclosure forms, and the consensus was that the requirement be limited to trustees, members of land-use boards and department heads. The discussion indicated that members of ad hoc committees, like the Mamaroneck Avenue Task Force or the Neighborhood Associations Committee, would be exempt. However, the trustees were not unreceptive to the idea of having consultants, like the village engineer, file disclosures.

Another important change would be to empower the Board of Ethics to initiate its own investigations and not be limited, as it is now, to matters referred to it by village officials.

The need to enable citizens to submit matters for investigation, rather than having to find public officials willing to present their complaints, was also stressed. "I think we need to have some sort of a mechanism," Trustee Tom Murphy noted, "for a citizen, who might have a valid complaint but can't get a village official to take it to the Ethics Board" to be able to present it herself. "We don't want to be the gatekeepers to the Ethics Board," he continued. He added, however, that this would mean that the Ethics Board "would have to weed through these to eliminate frivolous complaints that might reflect personal grudges."

Trustee Toni Pergola Ryan suggested that the trustees draw up guidelines that would advise citizens on what sorts of complaints would be valid and outline the procedure for filing them, and that an attorney be assigned to the Ethics Board on an as-needed basis..

Ryan also recommended that the amended ethics law guard against revolving-door influence by prohibiting departing village officials from appearing before boards and commissions for at least one year, or, preferably two, after leaving office. Murphy agreed with her, but offered the caveat that "We don't want. . .to preclude people from working at their profession in the village in which they live." For example, he noted, an architect who serves on the Coastal Zone Management Commission should not be prevented from going "before the Planning Board on a client's application."

On the subject of financial disclosure, Mayor Phil Trifiletti said he would like to follow recommendations submitted in a May 29 letter to the BOT from resident Suzanne McCrory. "Sue's words are better" than the proposed form, Trifiletti said, because her formulation would be less intrusive. "We don't want to scare people away," Trifiletti commented, by making them feel like their whole lives are going to be put out before the village."

In her letter, McCrory, a former federal auditor, wrote that "the proposed disclosure gathers far more detail than warranted to avoid conflicts of interest" and recommended "eliminating reporting all the assets and liabilities (and the net worth) of officers.. . .Instead I would suggest reporting income and assets with ties to governing decisions of the Village of Mamaroneck, combined with a consultation with the Board of Ethics to determine which village matters the reporting official should avoid."

Among those things that should be reported, McCrory said, are "social ties that may create opportunities for a quorum of board members to meet and secretly decide matters. Those who fail to disclose fully should be subject to removal from office."

She further wrote: "If something is prohibited, we should know it. Right now, there is a pattern of some disclosure of potential conflicts but no action taken to eliminate them. . . Officials report a conflict and then proceed with their duties as if there were none.. . .I think it might be better to cancel or annul any matter that an official steered through ethical misconduct and require that the decision-making process begin anew. The risk of reversal of the tainted decision should serve as the most effective deterrent to keep decisions from undue influence. Why not file court papers suggesting that the legislative change was wrongly obtained and ask the court to annul the Planning Board decision?"

Finally, McCrory suggested, "certain actions to evade basic responsibilities (such as failure to make required disclosures and recusals) should result in an automatic stiff financial penalty, almost like a traffic ticket. To avoid the penalty, an official can resign [his] office."

(See proposed financial disclosure form below and scroll down for proposed standards of conduct.))

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