Priming Westerlo's Code of Ethics

WESTERLO — Before the council’s Jan. 21 workshop, town Attorney Aline Galgay held a mandatory meeting with Westerlo’s zoning, planning, and town boards to go over the code of ethics.

“It’s not an option. It’s a requirement,” Galgay told the room, explaining the code’s provision that public officials must recuse themselves from any decisions that conflict with their interests.

Galgay had the town officials sign an attendance sheet, and said just one member of the zoning board was absent.

The town’s code of ethics was adopted in January 2012. It replaces an undated version, which Galgay said was adopted before her work with the town; she started in 1998.

The document applies to any town officers, employees, and volunteer members of boards, but not to emergency service or civil defense volunteers. With the town having several new appointees in the last two years, the meeting was held “to ensure that our boards really appreciated the seriousness of our code of ethics,” Galgay said after the training. She acknowledged that not all officials have adhered to it, or avoided the appearance of impropriety, but said the violations haven’t been done intentionally and that all town officials want good conduct.

“The whole point was to give everybody, ‘OK, here’s a clean slate,” said Galgay of the Tuesday training.

Annotating the code’s provision for conduct with subordinates, Galgay gave the room the example of an official soliciting political activity through e-mail.

After the training, Galgay told The Enterprise a town official has included e-mail contacts through the town for political activity, but would not specify who or what party had been involved. Most town officials use personal e-mails, she said.

The supervisor, highway superintendent, town clerk, assessor, and code-enforcement officer have town e-mail addresses listed on the town’s website.

Galgay said she is not aware of any disclosures of interests or conflicts made so far by town officials. She said the biggest issue for officials is avoiding the appearance of impropriety because they’ve already reconciled their conflicts with themselves.

“People don’t reflect on it,” Galgay said after the meeting. She would not say what specific cases she has been aware of.

If someone were to be found in violation of the code, she said, she would discuss it with the person. A case could be referred to the county’s ethics commission, since Westerlo doesn’t have one.

Galgay said she advises town officials to imagine how their actions would read if described on the front page of a newspaper. She uses herself as an example when describing the code.

“I lose a lot of business,” said Galgay, who has a private law practice in the town and cannot represent prospective clients who appear in its court.

The code is meant to supplement and follow the state’s General Municipal Law, which requires each county, city, town, village, school district, and fire district to adopt a code of ethics.

The town board voted unanimously to dissolve its unfilled board of ethics in May, citing oversight from the county. Galgay said the adoption and training on a new code of ethics was due in part to the attention municipal conduct has been given by the state’s attorney general, Eric Schneiderman, who took office in 2011.

The rules spelled out in the code of ethics include the requirement that an official or employee avoid circumstances “that compromise his/her ability to make [a] decision solely in the public interest or create an appearance of impropriety.”

The town’s code of ethics outlines that:

— Gifts or promises of more than $25 in value cannot be solicited, inferred, or accepted. Confidential information cannot be disclosed or used for personal gain;

— A public officer or employee cannot be paid for any service related to any town agency;

— Known private interests or relationships with any people, legislation, or agreement before a town board must be disclosed. Disclosures are to be part of the official record;

— Town officials and employees cannot hold any investments which conflict with their official duties;

— A former official or employee of the town cannot “appear before any board or agency of the Town in relation to any case, proceeding or application in which he/she personally participated during the period of his/her service or employment or which was under his/her active consideration”;

— Town-owned property cannot be used for private purposes or profit, except when responding to protect healthy, safety, and welfare;

— Requests for political contributions or activity from subordinates cannot be made. Officers and employees cannot persuade or aid another to violate the code of ethics;

— Family members may not serve in positions which conflict or appear to conflict with the duties of a related public official;

— If a conflict exists, a town official shall recuse him or herself; and

— New officers or employees receive copies of the code of ethics. Violations can result in fines, suspension, or removal from office or employment.

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