EDITORIAL: Put public’s trust above the exact rules – Niskayuna ethics dispute

Niskayuna Town Hall
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An ethics complaint filed by a citizen against a Niskayuna town councilman and the town supervisor is much ado about nothing.

It’s also not much ado about nothing.

Allow us to clarify.

Earlier this month, resident Kevin Duffy filed a Board of Ethics complaint alleging that Councilman Jason Moskowitz should have recused himself before voting for a slate of 95 seasonal town summer park employees that included Moskowitz’s cousin.

Duffy also filed a complaint against Supervisor Jaime Puccioni, saying that as fiscal officer, she had a responsibility to be aware of such conflicts.

Legally, and in terms of violating the town ethics law, it appears Moskowitz did nothing wrong by voting to hire his cousin.

Town ethics law regarding hiring conflicts defines a relative as a “spouse, child, stepchild, brother, sister, or parent of the town officer or employee.” Notice that “cousin” isn’t on the list.

So technically, Mr. Moskowitz had no obligation to disclose the relationship or recuse himself from the vote. Same thing with the supervisor; with no legal conflict, there was no reason for her to flag it.

Let’s throw in that Mr. Duffy, a former town Democratic Committee member, appears to have a political motivation for making accusations of nepotism. Moskowitz, a Republican, once filed an ethics complaint against a Democratic council member for voting on a similar resolution to hire her daughter for one of those summer jobs. That complaint actually had merit under the code.

Then let’s consider that we’re talking about a job that Moskowitz’s cousin has held in past summers, even before Moskowitz joined the board; the fact that it pays only $16.25 an hour; and the fact that her pay is the same as other employees with similar jobs. And let’s consider that the hiring list didn’t need Mr. Moskowitz’s vote to pass. The council vote on the list was unanimous. His cousin was getting hired anyway.

Add all that together, and the ethics complaint really is much ado about nothing.

But just because Mr. Moskowitz technically didn’t violate the ethics code doesn’t mean he didn’t do anything wrong, or that the public will perceive it his way.

If there’s a potential for a conflict, public officials have an obligation to disclose it and to recuse themselves from any vote in which a relative or someone else close to them might benefit financially — even if it’s not spelled out in the code.

Even if it’s a cousin, a nephew, a niece, a brother-in-law or someone else on another branch of the family tree. Even if the cost to taxpayers is relatively negligible. Even if the recipient is getting no obvious special treatment.

Ethics is about behavior, not law.

If you know that someone connected to you is applying for a government job over which you have influence and a vote, the ethical thing to do is disclose it and recuse yourself. Remove any doubt that you used the power of your office to enrich a relative or business associate or friend.

Whether the accusation of nepotism had official merit or not, Mr. Moskowitz’s decision to vote for the list that included his cousin planted a seed of doubt in the citizens’ minds. And the public’s trust is a big deal.

It’s much ado about something.

Let this be a lesson for other public officials faced with a similar decision.

When in doubt, talk it out, then opt out.

Categories: Editorial, Opinion, Opinion, Your Niskayuna

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