Featured Story

Codger’s Column: A matter of ethics

Cur II, that prince of poodles, is booked for surgery next week to repair a ruptured ACL, so he and Codger have been limping around the neighborhood discussing to-do projects during convalescence. Cur II doesn’t read yet, so choices are limited.

But there is the election, always a distraction from a world that’s falling down everything everywhere all at once.

Codger was surprised at first when Supervisor Gerry Siller threw his suspenders into the ring after having been clear about his decision not to seek a third straight two-year term.

Trying to dope out Siller’s motivations has been hopeless for Codger, but he can understand the supervisor’s frustrations with not making sufficient progress with his signature missions — community housing and protecting and then improving the quality of the water supply, both critical issues.

Maybe Siller thinks he can make headway in another term. What does he know?

Or maybe — and these are the kind of conspiratorial thoughts that bubble up in Island thinking lately — Siller is coming back to block the aspirations of Gordon Gooding, chairman of the Community Preservation Fund Advisory Board and his apparent opponent in a Democratic primary for supervisor.

And then the rumor-mongering gets worse: Once Siller wins, it goes, Siller, a Democrat, will abdicate in favor of his deputy supervisor, Amber Brach-Williams, whose ex-husband, the ex-supervisor Art Williams, is also on the Republican ticket, running for a Town Board seat.

Got all that? Codger doesn’t buy the rumor, but it offers a pretty good example of how bent and twisty the local lines of thought have become.

So there’s good reason why Cur II, no hushed puppy in the best of times, has been barking his curly head off when people bearing candidate petitions show up at the door, begging signatures in return for dark gossip.

Codger finds all this discouraging, a local version of Fox News subversion. Unfortunately, it’s also unavoidable in an administration that has been as opaque as this one.

But Supervisor Siller has his praiseworthy moments, notably the recent revival of a Board of Ethics, especially important in a small town where many people wear more than one hat and conflicts of interest are as inevitable as they are sometimes subtle.

How, for example, should you deal with professionals who consult for the town while representing private clients?

Codger, a former ombudsman for ESPN, is deeply interested in oversight and enforcement as a needed government watchdog. The new Board of Ethics doesn’t seem to have been created to morph into that function right away.

But under the chairmanship of Duff Wilson, a former prize-winning investigative reporter at Reuters and the New York Times, the proposals he outlined publicly last week and the strength of the committee — Deborah Grayson, Shelby Mundy, Robert Raiber and Laura Cunningham — promise exists of real progress in that direction.

Last year, the newly reconstituted Board of Ethics was still limited; basically all it could do was respond to the request of town employees (which include volunteer committee members) for a review of their activities to be sure there was no illegality or conflict of interest. The scope was pretty narrow.

Codger complained to Chairman Wilson, a friend, who merely nodded gravely and said nothing. Optimistically, Codger read hope in the lack of response; something was cooking. Codger kept on hoping even through the Board of Ethics most recent report; there were only six requests for review last year and only three that “required changed activity.”

The Board admitted there was still “no enforcement mechanism and the process is wrapped in secrecy.”

Then came last week’s Board of Ethics meeting in which a newly rewritten code was revealed. It specified some violations, suggested penalties and, most significantly, opened the complaint process to the general public. If a resident sees something, now there’s a place to say something.

By Shelter Island standards it was a bombshell and about time. Shelter Island is not exactly Dodge City, but its traditionally lackadaisical, if not shady, attitude toward code enforcement has impeded progress. This could signal the unlocking of a traditionally closed system.

The new code is not perfect; while the Board of Ethics can dismiss a complaint, it still needs to pass it on to the Town Board for action. And there is still more secrecy in the process than seems healthy, although this may be necessary to protect town employees from false accusations.

And it’s far from a done deal. The new code will be submitted to the Town Board. There will be a public hearing. The disruptors are waiting. Advisory boards can be treated rudely here, if not ignored. And who knows what Supervisor Siller has in mind.

But even Cur II thinks it’s a non-limping step forward in a backward time.