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RTM takes up LWV petition calling for town ethics code

Updated 7:31 pm, Thursday, February 28, 2013
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The Representative Town Meeting next week will consider a petition organized by two League of Women Voters of Westport members asking the town to adopt an ethics code for town employees and elected officials.

The citizens petition -- placed on Tuesday's RTM agenda after 20 voters had signed it -- follows up the LWV's proposal of a municipal ethics code last September. The lead petitioners are Pat Porio and Christine O'Sullivan, the chairwomen of the LWV's Ethics Study Committee.

The legislative body's first reading of the proposed ethics code ordinance will take place at its meeting set for 7:30 p.m. in the Town Hall auditorium.

Adoption of a town ethics code is a longstanding goal of the LWV. In June 2011, the LWV formed the Ethics Study Committee, which met frequently to write 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. Connecticut's

general statutes also include a code of ethics for public officials.

The town does not have either an ethics code or an ethics commission. However, the town charter's Rules Governing Boards and Commission and the RTM's Rules of Procedure address conflicts of interest.

Several town officials, including Brian Stern, chairman of the Board of Finance's audit subcommittee have said that they would support putting in place an ethics code.

"You need a structure so that we know the rules and we know what has to be communicated in what fashion and in total transparency," Stern told the Westport News. "And when you have that, a lot these peripheral rumblings about conflicts of interest, they'll disappear if people can explain their relationship with a bidder or a particular vote."

Creation of an ethics council constitutes 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.

The council could also take questions from town employees, officials and private citizens about ethical issues related to town government.

LWV's proposed code also stipulates that town officials and employees should not participate in town affairs in which they have a financial or "personal" interest, either directly or indirectly. If an official or employee anticipates a conflict of interest, he or she should disclose it to his or her board or supervisor and not participate in deliberations, decision-making and actions related to the issue, unless he or she obtains an advisory opinion under the ethics code that allows involvement, the proposed code adds.

Town officials and employees also could not use their positions or knowledge, which was not available to the public and gained in those roles, to further professional or financial interests, either directly or indirectly, according to the prospective code.

The LWV ethics standards would also bar town officials, employees, their families and members of any business with whom they are associated from soliciting gifts, loans, services, rewards or promises of employment that could "reasonably be expected to influence the action or judgment of the official or employee in any town or board matter."

"Everyone should have a code of ethics and if you want to formalize one for the town, go ahead," said John Izzo, a former selectman. "How could anyone complain about that?"

pschott@bcnnew.com; 203-255-4561, ext. 118; twitter.com/paulschott