With a focus on curbing conflict of interest, Warren County leaders are preparing to establish a Board of Ethics that would monitor the conduct of its employees.
The initiative is being pursued in conjunction with establishing a new county Code of Ethics & Disclosure Law that would replace the ethics regulations that are now in effect.
The draft regulations of the proposed law were distributed by Warren County Attorney Martin Auffredou at the county Personnel Committee meeting held Wednesday March 12. Auffredou said public hearings would likely be held on the proposed law later this year after it is endorsed by the county Board of Supervisors.
The proposed Ethics Board, consisting of five members, would review and investigate allegations of ethics breaches and conflicts of interest, as well as hold hearings on the incidences — and report findings to county officials.
The Ethics Board would also review and monitor financial disclosure statements, which are now required of all public officials, members of boards, county department managers, agency officials and county employees with consequential decision-making power. The Ethics Board would annually compile a list of people who would need to file such statements, and monitor compliance with the law.
Members of the Ethics Board could only be citizens considered independent of the Board of Supervisors, prohibiting any officer of a political party and all public officials from serving on the panel.
Also, Ethics Board members would be barred from making political contributions to public officials, and the majority of the members of the board could not represent one political party. The board members, however, would be appointed by the county Board of Supervisors.
The proposed Code of Ethics bars county employees from accepting gifts, or exerting influence on others for financial benefit. It also mandates that county officers, employees and elected officials make decisions on the basis of merit, with fairness and impartiality — giving no preference to anyone because of their wealth, position, or status.
The code also mandates that all county employees and officials refrain from any personal, private, financial, business or political activities that might undermine the public’s confidence in government, nor use their position for private gain — nor even give anyone that impression.
The code also features provisions that prohibit nepotism. No person is to be employed in any county post if the employee would be under the supervision of a relative, directly or indirectly.
Violators of the Code of Ethics could be fined up to $1,000 in addition to other penalties imposed, including a civil forfeiture of a sum up to three times the value of the benefit improperly gained due to the violation. The proposed local law also calls for the termination of any officer or employee who is convicted of a Class A Misdemeanor in connection with violating the Code of Ethics. Also, violators would be liable to the government for any losses or increased costs to the county as a result of the violation.
This new code, 28 pages long, replaces one that was established in 1990 that is less than six pages in length.
Auffredou and others said a considerable amount of work was expended on developing the draft law.
“This new code would do a much better job of clarifying what’s a conflict of interest or not, what needs to be done with complaints -- and if there is a violation, what the consequences are,” Auffredou said. He added that the draft law was modeled after the Ethics Code of Essex County and other counties in New York State.
County Board of Supervisors Clerk Joan Sady said this week that she did not recall any formal ethics complaints during her 11 years of service in the county Board of Supervisor’s office.
Citizen activists including John Salvadore years ago had lobbied for a Board of Ethics to be established. This week, he applauded the expanded law that’s proposed.
Board of Supervisors Chairman Kevin Geraghty said that when he became Chairman of the Board of Supervisors in January 2013, he prioritized creating a Board of Ethics and revamping the Ethics Code, and then he and Dusek pursued these objectives.
“Revising the code and creating an Ethics Board was a priority for years, but it was ‘back-burnered,’ he said, noting the other challenges the county had been facing at the time.
County Administrator Paul Dusek said that merely one situation regarding the code of ethics was referred to county officials since 1990. It was well more than a decade ago when a county supervisor inquired about whether his son could apply for a loan through the county Local Development Corporation, he said.
Dusek continued that the new law is much more detailed, describing in detail conduct that’s allowed, and what’s not.
“The new law details many things that were formerly subject to interpretation,” he said. “There are a lot of gray areas in the old code.”
Dusek added the new code is based on the state’s model ethics code.
“The goal is to bolster the confidence of Warren County citizens have in their government,” he said.