The Representative Town Meeting's Special Ethics Committee has unanimously recommended that the League of Women Voters of Westport withdraw its proposed ethics code ordinance for town employees and elected officials, with the panel expressing concerns that the proposal duplicates and, in some cases, conflicts with existing rules and procedures.
Committee members proposed that the LWV instead submit suggestions for improving the transparency and accessibility of town procedures for handling ethics concerns.
"We already have a lot of existing provisions regarding conflicts of interest, so what this whole process does is crystallize the need for transparent and accessible procedures for handling questions about ethics," Eileen Lavigne Flug, the committee's chairwoman, who is also the RTM's moderator, said Wednesday. "I think we need to look at how we're handling ethical concerns and figure out if there's a way to make that better and more accessible to the public."
The town does not have either an ethics code or an ethics commission, but the town charter's Rules Governing Boards and Commissions and the RTM's Rules of Procedure address conflicts of interest.
Flug added that she and her committee colleagues also had misgivings about parts of the code that they consider vague.
The full RTM held a first reading of the ordinance at its March 5 meeting, after submission of the ethics code petition by Pat Porio and Christine O'Sullivan, the chairwomen of the LWV's Ethics Study Committee. But the plan has since struggled to gain support from RTM members, town department heads and employee unions. The RTM's Ordinance Committee last month ruled that the code was not ready for the legislative body's consideration, citing concerns similar to those of the Special Ethics Committee.
Porio said Wednesday the Special Ethics Committee had offered constructive input.
"Our goal had always been for this to be aired in a comprehensive way, and my feeling has always been that if we don't get this code that we wrote was that we had a placed for complaints to come to," she said. "The fact that the RTM talked about in two committees is important. They're feeling that if we come back with something that they can work with it."
Porio added that the LWV has not decided whether it will withdraw the proposed ethics code and that the LWV's Ethics Study Committee will likely meet next week to discuss the status of the initiative.
Adoption of a town ethics code for town officials is a longstanding LWV goal. In June 2011, the LWV formed the Ethics Study Committee, which wrote the proposed code.
About 120 of Connecticut's 169 municipalities have adopted some type of ethics code, according to a 2007 report by a state task force on municipal ethics. State general statutes also include a code of ethics for public officials.
Creation of an ethics council would be one of the most important features of the LWV's proposed code. Consisting of five town residents appointed to three-year terms by the Board of Selectmen, the council would have the power to investigate written ethics complaints received about town employees or officials. Anyone could make a complaint, so long as he or she submits it within a year of the alleged infraction. After a confidential review, the council would hold a hearing, if it were to find probable cause for a reported ethics violation. The council would not have the authority to start investigations.
Ethics council hearings would resemble judicial court trials. A defendant could be represented by legal counsel, present evidence and examine and cross-examine witnesses, including the complainant. The council could also examine any witnesses, including the defendant and complainant. In addition, the council could administer oaths or affirmations and issue subpoenas to require attendance by witnesses. It could subpoena hard-copy or electronic records as well. A taped or stenographic record would be made of each hearing.
If a majority of the ethics council were to determine that an ethics violation had been committed, it could recommend sanctions that could include censuring an individual or removing someone from his or her elected position or town job.
In an April 8 memo to Flug, municipal department heads expressed several concerns about the "very public process" of the council, which has the "potential of staining one's reputation even if one is found innocent of any wrongdoing."
The memo's signatories included Police Chief Dale Call, Fire Chief Andrew Kingsbury, Public Works Director Steve Edwards, Parks and Recreation Director Stuart McCarthy, Human Services Director Barbara Butler, P&Z Director Larry Bradley, Finance Director Gary Conrad and Town Clerk Patty Strauss.
The memo also said the LWV's code lacks an appeal process, which "violates the accused person's right" to due process.
"The implementation of an independent code of conduct would quite likely create confusion as well as contradiction with the previously articulated bodies of regulations," they said in an April 8 memo to Flug.
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