The Halfmoon Town Board this week approved the first update to its ethics law since 1970, even as town Supervisor Mindy Wormuth has been criticized on ethics grounds for her recent actions on the Saratoga County Board of Supervisors.
The town law includes new financial disclosure requirements, and it establishes plans for biannual ethics training for town employees so they can recognize potential conflicts of interest and know when to seek advisory opinions.
“I think that every business, every part of society, is looking to improve ethics,” said Town Board member Craig Hayner, chairman of the ethics committee.
The law’s approval comes as Wormuth has faced criticism for her support of Christina Abele, the 22-year-old daughter of local developer and Republican campaign contributor Chris Abele, as she sought to become director of the county animal shelter.
Hayner declined to comment on the animal shelter situation, which is outside the purview of the town’s ethics law. The county has its own ethics law, written in 1990, that is focused primarily on requiring officials to make financial disclosures.
Abele’s appointment was rejected Tuesday by a split Board of Supervisors in the most contentious vote the board has seen in several years. A number of speakers at the meeting and some supervisors said Abele was unqualified and too inexperienced for the job.
Wormuth, as chairwoman of the county Public Safety Committee, was on the six-member search committee that interviewed candidates for shelter director. Even though Abele listed Wormuth as a reference on her résumé, Wormuth backed Abele’s selection as a member of the search committee, in two subsequent board committee votes and at the board meeting Tuesday.
“I was very uncomfortable with it and [Wormuth] bringing it forward,” said Providence Supervisor John Collyer, one of Wormuth’s fellow Republicans on the Board of Supervisors. “I think she should have recused herself.”
Collyer attended the meeting but then left and missed the vote due to a scheduling conflict.
Wormuth previously has defended herself in the matter but did not respond Friday to a call seeking comment for this story.
Chris Abele or his company, Abele Builders of Halfmoon, have donated $12,750 to Halfmoon Republican candidates or organizations since 2005, including $5,250 in the past three years.
Wormuth’s campaign treasury received $1,500 from Abele Builders in 2007-08 and $1,000 from Abele Limited Partnership in 2011, according to political donation filings. Wormuth has said there have been no more recent contributions.
Hayner said the new town ethics law includes provisions for training to help officials realize when there’s a potential conflict of interest. The first training sessions should be within a month or two, he said.
“I think a lot of people get in trouble just not knowing what a conflict of interest is,” he said.
The law for the first time will require annual financial disclosure forms to be submitted by Town Board members as well as members of the Planning Board and Zoning Board of Appeals. The disclosure requirements also cover the assessor, highway superintendent and other town employees who are in policy-making positions.
Hayner said work on the new law began in December 2011. “A lot of the stuff we had before was based on general municipal law. It was pretty loose,” he said.
The town consulted with Mark Davies, a former executive director of the Temporary State Commission on Local Government Ethics, as well as the state comptroller’s office and consulted existing municipal ethics laws, Hayner said.
The law allows the ethics committee to review complaints made against town officials, but the complaints must be in writing. “Otherwise we could just be chasing allegations,” he said.
The committee would have the power to impose financial penalties for violations and could reprimand, suspend or even remove employees for proven violations.
The law prohibits officials receiving gifts worth more than $75 and forbids elected officials from also simultaneously serving in a leadership post in a political party.
It does not, however, address officials’ relationships with people who donate to political campaigns. “Campaign contributions are part of free speech,” Hayner said.
However, he said the issues raised by dealing with people who make campaign donations could be addressed in the future.
The initial disclosure filings are due by April 30, Hayner said. After that, they must be updated annually.
The committee that drafted the law included Hayner and residents Scott Fisher, Beverly McBride and Linda Daley.