Ethics word cloud concept

Doesn’t it seem that ethics questions have a way of popping up time and again in Riverhead’s town hall. Let’s consider how those whom we elect, and whom they in turn appoint to run this big and beautiful town, might better address ethics issues.

Riverhead for the first time adopted a detailed and binding town ethics code on Nov. 16, 2004. Since then, virtually no real improvements or updating of our ethics code has occurred. There are many resources to guide local officials in drafting or improving local ethics codes, including a Model Code of Ethics published by the Office of the State Comptroller to assist local officials in this endeavor. But in Riverhead, it simply hasn’t been a priority. While limited space here prevents a complete review of our ethics code, let’s discuss some provisions that stand out as deserving immediate attention.

When it comes to conflicts of interest, Riverhead’s Code of Ethics leaves room for much improvement. It does a poor job of defining “recusal” when a town board, planning board, zoning board, or IDA member, or any department head, has a conflict of interest in a matter before that board or department.

Actually, the ethics code requires not only recusal, but also an on-the-record statement of the reason for the recusal. But the reasons for recusal we hear out of town hall are usually too brief and too vague. They ought to be more detailed.

After disclosure, the conflicted official is prohibited from having any “involvement” in the pending matter. Riverhead’s ethics code needs to be amended to specify exactly what no “involvement” means. It has to spell out exact rules after disclosure of a conflict.

Recusal with no involvement means two things: refraining from voting on the matter that presents a conflict, and to be uninvolved in any action on that matter by the board or department. This is where town officials, elected or appointed, and civil service decision-makers, have been increasingly careless.

No “involvement” means not only to refrain from voting or acting; it also means the conflicted official or employee shall take absolutely no part in discussion or debate, or during public hearings — none. Otherwise, the conflicted official can steer discussion in a favorable direction, or raise questions whose answers will advance the matter to a certain advantage.

Recusal only by refraining from the final vote or decision, but participating anyway, is a recusal that is inadequate and incomplete. To not vote, but to participate in discussion before or after the vote, is deceptive. It circumvents Riverhead’s or any code of ethics, even makes a mockery of it.

Then there is the issue of outside employment. Rather than require disclosure of certain outside employment, the town code should require disclosure of all outside employment of any and all town officials. Attorneys contend that this interferes with their private practices, as the identity of their clients is privileged. The remedy for any breach of attorney-client privilege with such disclosure is clear: Don’t have any private legal practice while in the town’s full-time employ. Substantial salaries and benefits in town hall compensate for that. For the same reasons, the code of ethics should altogether ban outside employment by department heads.

Whether they be attorneys, planners, engineers or department heads – when they breach the disclosure requirements, the ethics code should go beyond merely the sanctions it can impose. In addition to sanctions, the ethics code should give official notice to the professional organizations of which the official, found to violate the town’s ethics code, is a member, be it the Suffolk County Bar Association, the American Institute of Certified Planners, the American Institute of CPAs, etc.

For anyone in a profession who is ethically challenged, the prospect of a complaint to their professional associations will serve as a compelling deterrent. Such a complaint will usually trigger a separate investigation by the professional association.

Next consider the legions of outside consultants who are barely covered by Riverhead’s ethics code. For better or worse, Riverhead increasingly relies on well (over)-paid consultants. What if an outside consultant fails to disclose a conflict of interest in his/her work for the town, and that failure is later discovered?

This is why the town should adopt a code revision mandating publication of any consultant’s conflict of interest which that consultant failed to disclose when later discovered, even if not discovered until up to two or three years after it occurred. Post this information about the outside consultant’s failure to disclose on the town’s website, in statements to press and other media. Revise the code further to bar the town’s hiring of the errant consultant for a period of three or even five years. This creates a strong incentive for outside consultants to disclose when appropriate.

The town code of ethics also needs to catch up with the age of technology. While there is much room for the code’s improvement in this regard, let’s consider for now the role of e-mails.

Both personal e-mails containing town business, and town server e-mails, are subject to public scrutiny through the Freedom of Information Law. To use personal e-mails for town business, however, can hinder access by the public, particularly if those personal e-mails are not saved.

The town email server automatically archives town e-mails in order to be accessible as required by law. There’s no such safeguard for town business on an official’s or employee’s personal email account. There is enormous potential for neglect and abuse by many town officials in their private server e-mails. Amend the code of ethics to prohibit entirely the use of personal email accounts and servers for town business.

Finally, there’s the town ethics code’s “revolving door” policy. As currently written, it allows former town officials and employees to represent others before town agencies and boards after waiting a brief six months from when they leave office, or the town’s employ. The Model Code Of Ethics recommends that this waiting period be no less than two years. This two-year ethical standard should be Riverhead’s as well.

There are a host of other areas of Riverhead’s ethics code that cry out for attention. Only a bare minimum have been here considered. So let’s close with this suggestion: Using the Model Ethics Code as guidance, Riverhead’s town board should update and revise the town’s ethics code. A citizens group of volunteers would be a credible vehicle for recommendations. Post a draft of needed amendments for public reaction and input.

A meaningful, potent ethics code would be well worth the effort. Clearly, it would serve Riverhead well. In itself, it would raise the status of everyone connected with town hall and the decisions they make from day to day. Above all, it would strengthen, if not restore, the shaken confidence of the people of Riverhead in their government.

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Greg Blass
Greg has spent his life in public service since he enlisted in the U.S. Navy as a teenager. He is a former Suffolk County Family Court judge, six-term Suffolk County legislator and commissioner of Social Services. Now retired, Greg is active in volunteer work and is a board member of several charities. He lives in Jamesport. Email Greg