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Shelter Island Reporter Editorial: Making ethics essential to government

Good news is coming from Town Hall, which is good news for Shelter Island. The Board of Ethics is moving in a robust fashion to look into, among other things, questions on hiring, spending money, where policy initiatives are coming from and how town employees are treated.

The Ethics Board, which had been in a government-induced coma for years, was brought back to the land of the living under the Siller administration last year, and reconstituted with new membership — Chairperson Duff Wilson, Deborah Grayson, Laura Cunningham, Shelby Mundy and Robert Raiber.

Mr. Siller admitted last year that he didn’t know an Ethics Board even existed, and he was far from the only one in the dark. Former Town Board members hadn’t seen the need to refer decisions for an ethics consideration, or perhaps were clever enough not to take a chance those decisions would be publicly questioned.

There had been no referrals to the Ethics Board for years, according to some sources, but now it’s off life support and is proposing changes to its mission.

At present, the Ethics Board can only receive queries about matters of ethics from town officials and/or town employees. The members now want a code change that would allow them to investigate questions from any resident.

In addition, the Ethics Board is asking to bring some light to a process that had been in the shadows. In a letter to the Town Board, Mr. Wilson, writing about the procedure involved in an investigation into an employee’s conduct, noted that “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 …”

A method to review decisions that affect residents, by an independent body, is more important in a small place, such as Shelter Island, than larger municipalities. As Robert Lipsyte pointed out in his column this week, the Island is a place where “many people wear more than one hat and conflicts of interest are as inevitable as they are sometimes subtle.”

We salute the move to resurrect the Board of Ethics, and the dedicated members who have pledged themselves to change its scope, and bring to the government’s business the idea former U.S. Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart expressed: “Ethics is knowing the difference between what you have a right to do, and what is right to do.”