City talks ethics

Under the terms of a new city proposal, if an alderman were to choose a lobbying career after his tenure ended, he would best be advised to stay away from lobbying at City Hall.

Spearheaded by Ward 5 Alderman Jorge Perez, an ethics policy that has been on the table for months seems set for ultimate approval on most, but not all, of its provisions after a Board of Aldermen meeting Monday night. The proposal was inspired by ethical lapses in Connecticut state government and legal ambiguity in New Haven’s conduct code, not by any specific instance of corruption in New Haven, the aldermen supporting the bill said.

The policy would bolster existing regulations on city employees and alderman by restricting their ability to accept gifts, which could be perceived as bribes. It would also more clearly define so-called “temporary employees” of the city as permanent employees so they could not evade ethics regulations. But heated debate ensued over another tenet of Perez’s proposal, which would restrict city officials or aldermen from leaving their posts to become lobbyists or to enter positions where they would advocate a law or reform on behalf of an institution or private company.

Beyond just sparking debate as to whether such a rule would be advantageous for the city, the provision raises still more complicated questions, such as what defines a lobbyist — since unlike state or national lobbyists, local advocates do not need to formally register with the government — and whether the statute could have unintended consequences.

Chair of the Aldermanic Affairs Committee and Ward 24 Alderwoman Elizabeth McCormack said she is still grappling with those questions herself, but does not want to see the rest of the legislation delayed.

“I don’t want to see the whole thing held out because of a debate on the lobbyist part,” she said. “I think Jorge would rather see the whole thing passed, but he agrees we don’t want to hold the whole thing up because we’re having this extensive debate about what it means to be a lobbyist … The next step is to fine-tune so we have something we’re all on the same page on.”

McCormack said she was disappointed that the proposal took so long to come before the committee. It was first submitted as a letter to the city’s lawyers in December 2005, but that letter was apparently lost. Then the aldermen ran into the problem of finding a night when committee chairs could meet.

Now that the discussion has finally started, however, many aldermen have begun to weigh in on the issue. Board of Aldermen President Carl Goldfield said the proposal was a “worthwhile reform,” but that he would like to further explore whether a blanket provision concerning lobbyists could have unfortunate effects.

“I just think we need to be careful and precise about what we’re doing,” Goldfield said. “There’s the old law of unintended consequences. When you start to paint with a broad brush, you oftentimes end up dousing with paint people you don’t intend to.”

He said he thinks it is ironic that Congress has had provisions similar to those currently on the table for a long time, yet the situation there has only worsened.

“Ethics is understanding the difference between right and wrong, and it’s not something you can really legislate,” Goldfield said.

Ward 1 Alderman Nick Shalek ’05 said he supports ethics reform as long as aldermen can leave city government and still return to share their opinions, whether they represent another interest or not. Aldermen can tell whether they are being manipulated, he said.

“I think the members of the Board of Alderman are well aware of people’s vested interest and take that into account,” Shalek said.

Michael Morand ’87 DIV ’93, now associate vice president for Yale’s Office of New Haven and State Affairs and an alderman himself in the early 1990s, said he would warn against ethical reforms that would prevent civic-minded residents from helping the city.

Morand pointed to Ted DeLauro, who left the Board of Aldermen in the 1960s to work on neighborhood renewal in Wooster Square — a project that required him to work closely with the board. Ted DeLauro is the father of Congresswoman Rosa DeLauro.

“Preventing former Alderman DeLauro from work would have robbed the city of a very talented neighborhood worker,” Morand said. “So the question would be, ‘What real problem exists that the ban would solve?’”

Ward 7 Alderwoman Bitsie Clark said there are cases facing the Board today, such as lobbying from the neighborhood group Community Organized for Responsible Development or the Yale-New Haven Cancer Center, in which the city would probably benefit from a one-year ban on lobbying by those who recently had inside perspectives on the city government.

But Clark said Perez’s proposals were hardly inspired by a New Haven problem. Rather, she said, they came about as a response to external events and a desire to avoid the embarrassment suffered by the state when ex-Governor John Rowland was imprisoned for massive corruption.

“I think that the situation in the state government got so bad that it gave us all cause and made us think,” she said. “Jorge did the right thing in really trying to get us to start thinking about what our ethics are, looking at the laws we have now and seeing if they can be changed.”

McCormack said she hopes for a final decision on the proposal within the next three months, though there the Board will need to clarify the law’s potential effects before a consensus can be reached.

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