EDITORIAL: Don’t shut public out of ethics complaints

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PHOTOGRAPHER:

What is considered a violation of government ethics?

What conduct does someone who brings a complaint of unethical conduct against a government official consider unethical?

What do members of the local ethics committee — the committee entrusted with determining ethical vs. unethical conduct by government officials — consider ethical conduct? And does the conduct raised by

someone who filed an ethics complaint rise to that level?

These are questions the citizens have a right to ask and a right to have answered.

But not according to the governing body of the town of Niskayuna.

A new policy by the town instructs members of the town Ethics Committee not to comment about pending ethics complaints against public officials, and instead to direct inquires to Town Attorney Paul Briggs — an official appointed by the Town Board who will now determine for himself whether the public should know about these complaints.

If someone has a concern about a government official’s ethical conduct, the people have a right to know about that citizen’s concerns and to judge for themselves whether they believe the complaint has merit.

One could argue that government officials accused of unethical conduct has a right to privacy in such matters, as they are considered innocent until proven guilty.

That would be true if they were accused of a crime and if their conduct itself wasn’t public.

But challenges to ethical conduct relate only to their behavior in office while performing their duties for the citizens.

An ethics complaint could rise to the level of a crime, we suppose.

But more than likely, it would only reveal a potential conflict of interest or an alleged pattern of behavior that the public should know about — before guilt or innocence is determined.

Allowing the town attorney to manage the flow of information to the public and run interference for the board itself represents a potential ethical violation.

What better way to quash public scrutiny of one’s ethical conduct than by having your own appointee run interference for you?

And what better way to keep complaints from reaching the public than by holding discussions about ethical complaints in secret and at a time inconvenient for the public to attend so they could challenge secrecy of such discussions?

The Niskayuna Ethics Board met most recently at 8 a.m. Wednesday, during which it reviewed a number of complaints, none of which were made public, nor were any decisions regarding those complaints made public.

How many ordinary citizens can attend meetings at 8 o’clock in the morning in the middle of the work week?

Exactly the point.

Unethical conduct festers in the dark. And when government business is conducted in the dark, the public loses trust.

Only by being open and transparent can public officials in Niskayuna gain that trust.

Categories: Editorial, Opinion

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