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New Scotland Archives — The Altamont Enterprise, January 14, 2010

After crisis
Public debates ethics law

By Saranac Hale Spencer

NEW SCOTLAND — Following the realization that the town’s ethics law is inadequate, which was made clear during the meltdown of the Commercial Zone Advisory Committee a year ago, the town board is considering a bill that would create an ethics committee to comply with New York State law.

The law under which New Scotland currently operates, adopted in 2001, specifies that “the town board will perform all ethical reviews if any ethical questions are raised concerning a town employee.”

However, the provision of the state’s General Municipal Law that allows for the creation of an ethics board requires that it “shall consist of at least three members, a majority of whom are not otherwise officers or employees of such municipality.”

The draft currently under consideration calls for a five-member board, to be appointed by the town board, with only one member being a town officer or employee.  The state law stipulates that at least one member of the board must be an elected or appointed official.

In late 2008, Town Attorney Michael Mackey discovered that the town’s law didn’t follow the state’s law, and therefore the town board wasn’t able to hear the ethics complaint lodged against Elizabeth Kormos. 

Kormos sat on the CZAC, which was a five-member committee appointed by the town board to advise the town on bringing its zoning code into line with its comprehensive plan in the wake of a proposal for a large-scale commercial development on the old Bender melon farm.  Other members of the committee argued that Kormos had a conflict of interest since she had dealt with commercial land owners in town when she was part of a team that proposed a retail development in 2006 on the Bender site.

Three of the five members on the committee resigned and the town went no further with the ethics charge.

In August of last year, Mackey said, the town board asked him to draft a new ethics law.  After consulting with nearby towns, Mackey said, he used the town of Guilderland’s law, which was a model from the state.

“It has been fairly well tested,” Mackey said of Guilderland’s ethics law.  The Republican minority on that town’s contentiously split board leveled conflict-of-interest charges against the town’s Democratic attorney at the end of 2008 — the case was heard by Guilderland’s seven-member ethics board.

In the six years that Mackey has been New Scotland’s attorney, the ethics law hadn’t been used until the CZAC charges came up, he said.

During a public hearing on Wednesday night, the town board heard concerns from Robert Stapf, who sits on the planning board and is a licensed surveyor, about whether he would be allowed to do work in the town or if he would be required to recuse himself from hearing some requests that come before his board.

“A town officer or employee shall promptly recuse himself or herself from acting on a matter before the town when acting on the matter, or failing to act on the matter, may financially benefit” himself, his business, or his relatives, the bill says.

Further, a town officer who holds a professional license, like a surveyor, cannot exercise discretion in a matter before the town that involves a client with whom he has worked within the last year nor can he “knowingly have any interest in or accept compensation, direct or indirect, from any person, firm or corporation which has an interest in matters coming before any town agency,” which the bill defines as any office, board, council, or department.

Michael Fields, who made an unsuccessful bid for supervisor on the Republican line in the fall election, suggested that those who sit on political parties’ committees should not be appointed to the ethics board, to which councilman Daniel Mackay answered that there could be constitutional issues with that kind of a stipulation, since it could interfere with the right to free speech.

Part of the bill does say, “no ethics board member shall hold office concurrently in a political party.”

Councilman Mackay and attorney Mackey will go through the public comments on the bill and adjust the draft accordingly, which might require another public hearing, depending on the degree to which it is changed.

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