At least give the Schenectady City Council credit for insisting that a $60,000 grant to the mother of one of its members be approved by the city’s ethics board. That the ethics board currently has no members, and hasn’t for years, is an issue, but it should be resolved soon. The grant itself may be another story.
It’s a ticklish question complicated by the fact that the councilwoman in question, Marion Porterfield, lives in her mother’s home. So the grant would benefit not just her mother, who is quite elderly, but Porterfield herself.
Thus it may not be enough that Porterfield has refrained from talking about her mother’s application. There are politics involved: Porterfield is, after all, a Democrat on a board that, save for one member, is entirely Democratic. She was appointed to her seat by those very Democrats nine months ago — roughly a year after her mother applied for the grant, which is a joint project between the city and Community Land Trust. But Porterfield was politicking for the party’s endorsement in 2011 and the only reason she didn’t run (for a seat that John Mootooveren ultimately ran for but didn’t win) was that she was reportedly promised Gary McCarthy’s seat if he became mayor. When that happened, she was indeed appointed to fill his vacant seat.
But even if Porterfield wouldn’t be funneling money to herself or a family member (which state ethics law expressly forbids), it hardly seems ethical for her friends on the council to do so — and by appointing the ethics board’s membership, that’s what they’d be construed as doing indirectly. Her mother may be qualified for the low-income, owner-occupied home rehabilitation grant, and has been approved by the Community Land Trust, but the fact that Porterfield lives in her house (and presumably will inherit it someday), and that the ethics board will be composed entirely of Democratic appointments can’t help but raise the appearance of a conflict of interest.
At the very least, the council should attempt to get an opinion from the comptroller’s office or the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development, where some of the grant money originates. Even still, it needs to consider the political implications: A much-smaller housing loan to the brother of Troy’s then-Democratic Deputy Mayor (and former Schenectady Councilman) Jim Conroy in the late 1990s created an uproar. Are Schenectady Democrats anxious for a similar political circus?