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Town Ethics Board seeking significant changes: Watchdogs want more transparency and expanded role

In January, the town’s Board of Ethics presented an annual report to the Town Board. Reconstituted in March 2022, the Ethics Board had been moribund to the point that early last year Supervisor Gerry Siller said he was unaware there was an active Ethics Board, and hadn’t thought it had been used much in the past.

Dorothy Ogar, who was town clerk at the time, disputed that, saying that while its work was private, she knew the old Ethics Board had been consulted from time to time.

Ethics Board members appointed in early 2022 — Chairperson Duff Wilson, Deborah Grayson, Laura Cunningham, Shelby Mundy and Robert Raiber — were determined to become active and change its mission. They met eight times last year.

One change the Ethics Board is seeking is to, as Mr. Wilson wrote to the Town Board, bring more daylight to proceedings and decisions that in the past have been kept in the dark.

In the letter to the Town Board, Mr. Wilson noted that the Town Code forbids public disclosure of specific findings by the Ethics Board.

“In fact, it only allows us to provide ethics review upon request of an employee who may (or may not) be acting out of compliance with the ethics code,” the letter stated. “Even in that event, under the current code, disclosure of our findings is completely up to the employee in question. There is no complaint procedure, no enforcement mechanism; the process is wrapped in secrecy. We are drafting and will soon recommend a new, better code …”

In an email response to a question, Mr. Wilson told the Reporter about another possible change, which will also require a modification of the Town Code. That change would allow the Ethics Board to investigate, or offer opinions, about town officials or employees if citizens, and not just town officials and employees, make a request.

“Unfortunately, the current Town of Shelter Island ethics code (see section 8-6) only allows employees and officials to ask ethics or conflict-of-interest questions about themselves,” Mr. Wilson wrote. “We’re not empowered to investigate or offer opinions if other people ask about town employees or officials. This is an important gap we highlighted in our 2022 annual report to the Town Board a few months ago, and again [at a recent] Ethics Board meeting with public input. The Town Board has asked us to recommend improvement to the code and we will do so shortly.”

In its annual report, the Ethics Board said it had received six employee requests for ethics reviews and determined “that three of them required changed activity by the employees who sought our opinions, while the other three did not require any changes … The three that required changes included two town advisory committee members (who are considered employees) and one full-time salaried employee.”

Because of the secrecy provisions in the code, the Ethics Board couldn’t identify the employees to the Town Board, or make any reference that might identify them.

In its report, the Ethics Board noted that “there is no further enforcement or complaint mechanism under the current, inadequate town ethics code.”

The next meeting of the Ethics Board will be Monday, March 27, from 2 to 4 p.m. at Town Hall.

On the agenda will be the suggested changes to the Town Code the Ethics Board is seeking.