Tuesday, December 02, 2008

Public hearing on municipal ethics

This evening, state legislators were in Waterbury holding a public hearing to consider municipal ethics reform. I stopped by and read aloud this June 2007 editorial from the NYTimes, focusing on two reform suggestions:

Strengthen the chief state’s attorney’s office by giving the state’s top prosecutor the power to issue subpoenas during investigations. The Legislature stripped away that power several decades ago when the chief state’s attorney was deemed too aggressive in fighting in-state corruption. The office must have more authority.

Make it easier to convene a grand jury. Connecticut has a one-man grand jury system that consists of an appointed judge, but the standards for convening a grand jury to aid investigations are so high that it is rarely used. No grand juries at all were convened in 2006. It is time to make this a usable law-enforcement tool. Chief State’s Attorney Kevin Kane said that he has discussed with opponents ways to craft a law more acceptable to them, but so far nothing has passed the Legislature’s Judiciary Committee.

The board holding the public hearing consisted of two state legislators and several local officials. The two legislators were State Senator Gayle Slossberg:

and State Rep. James Spallone:

(photos courtesy of the CBIA)

Along with reading the editorial, I made a few comments and answered a few questions.

If you read the editorial, you'll see it focuses on state-level corruption. And I was asked about this. But I explained that I oftentimes see little difference between corruption and a lack of ethics... other than the existence of a criminal statute.

When pressed by Sen. Slossberg on reforms I would like to see in Cheshire, I suggested that crafting a clearly defined municipal ethics law is probably futile. There would simply be too many scenarios... and I obviously don't want another unfunded state mandate. But I do think that there could be value in the State Ethics Commission crafting municipal guidelines - guidelines that could be brought to the attention of municipal officials whenever someone thinks s/he is stepping out of line... and also to the press, if the official insists on moving forward.

Someone else asked me something about how the NYTimes editorial relates to municipal ethics, when it clearly focused on state corruption. My feeling is simple - we should take a Rudy Giuliani approach - zero tolerance. That is, Rudy cleaned up Times Square by having a zero tolerance policy on crime. And I think the same concept applies here. Certain powers - subpoena power for state's attorneys and simplifying the power to convene a grand jury - would send a chill down the spine of any public official who is thinking of engaging in questionable activities.

Near the end of my Q&A, Sen. Slossberg reminded me of the reforms (state contracting, pension revocation, etc.) that have been implemented since the NYTimes opined. And she (and the legislature) deserves a lot of credit for that. But when Shelton's "Public Official #1" is being investigated by the Feds, isn't it obvious that CTs corruption reforms have not yet gone far enough?

Anyway, I really appreciate the efforts of Sen. Slossberg and Rep. Spallone. Knowing something about how the legislature works, I give them great credit for having the public hearing. I have no doubt that they got serious pushback from a number of legislators who live by Cheshire's motto:
Tim White


Anonymous said...

" when the chief state’s attorney was deemed too aggressive in fighting in-state corruption. The office must have more authority."

When the legislature takes away power from the attorney general, you know we are in trouble. That explains why there is so much corruption in CT.

Anonymous said...

The reason this town has no rules on ethics is that would eliminate almost everyone on the town council and BOE