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Shelter Island Reporter editorial: Conflicts

The Town Board has unanimously decided to bring the Board of Ethics, which has been in a governmentally induced coma for years, back to the land of the living.

Not a moment too soon. Or better late than never. Take your pick.

According to the Town Code, three members are appointed by the Town Board to the Board of Ethics (also known as the Ethics Committee) and “shall render advisory opinions to Town employees on written request and, upon request of the Town Board, make recommendations to such Town Board.”

There has been no referral to the Ethics Committee for years. Town Boards have not seen the need to refer decisions, or perhaps were clever enough not to take a chance they would be publicly questioned on choices. Again, take your pick.

But now, with charges made almost every week about the choices made by the current Town Board, we congratulate them for taking the Ethics Committee off life support.

Questions were raised about an application for moorings from the Ram’s Head Inn owner. Waterways Management Advisory Council (WMAC) Chairman John Needham called the application “the most complex and most controversial” to ever come before him, adding, “This is more than I signed up for.”

Could an Ethics Committee have cut through the sturm und drang and rendered an impartial opinion?

Soon there was the spectacle of a pathetic shouting match at Town Hall over charges that a WMAC member sold influence. Grave accusations were made questioning an Islander’s integrity and honor. It was left to fester, when it could have been resolved by Ethics Committee members investigating and reporting.

And then a decision was made by the Board to hire a town attorney, with a huge boost in salary over his predecessor. The attorney is the private lawyer for one of the Island’s most prominent real estate companies, which is buying businesses at a record pace.

We were assured the new hire would recuse himself from any business that comes before the town involving his private client. There’s even $20,000 in the budget to pay for outside counsel if this occurs, we were told.

But with his client purchasing properties that will come before the Planning, Zoning and Town Boards, how many billable hours will that cover?

The most concerning part of this situation has been Town Board members saying they never considered this appointment to be, in any way, a potential conflict of interest, or even the appearance of a conflict of interest.

Which makes us repeat the question posed by many Islanders who have contacted us — “What were they thinking?”

We make no charges. We’re not in the conspiracy-promoting business. But there is an old expression called “Caesar’s Wife,” meaning that, when making an appointment, it should be a person who doesn’t have even the appearance of a conflict of interest.

We’re not suspicious of anyone’s motives. We wish, sincerely, the town attorney well. And the same goes for the reborn Committee, which can get the Town’s government back to work without a good segment of the citizenry questioning the ethics of its choices.