Committee approves ethics code

Despite some lingering confusion about technicalities, members of the Joint Aldermanic Affairs/Legislation Committee reached a general consensus about an ordinance updating the city’s Code of Ethics on Monday night.

Committee members last night attended their last meeting addressing reforms of the city’s ethics code for public officials, executive management employees and city contractors — the final step in a process that has been in the works for two years. The committee made several last-minute changes to the proposed ordinance, notably requiring the Board of Ethics to issue annual recommendations regarding the success of the reforms and readjusting limitations on gifts to officials.

From left, Frances “Bitsie” Clark, Elizabeth McCormack and Roland Lemar attend the Board of Alderman meeting Monday.
Salvador Andrade
From left, Frances “Bitsie” Clark, Elizabeth McCormack and Roland Lemar attend the Board of Alderman meeting Monday.

The finalized draft was passed with six affirmative votes and two abstentions and will be sent to the full board for approval.

Several aldermen said during the meeting that they initially had concerns about the nature of the ordinance, since aldermen are covered under the Code of Ethics.

“It seems wrong to me that we are the ones who are determining our own ethics,” Ward 9 Alderman Roland Lemar said. “The process seems incorrect.”

Ward 5 Alderman Jorge Perez said it was necessary for the aldermen to take action on the code of ethics because no other city officials had taken the initiative. He said members of the Board of Ethics can also propose reforms.

In response to Lemar’s concerns about a possible conflict of interest, Ward 29 Alderman and Board of Aldermen President Carl Goldfield said the Code of Ethics should encourage the Board of Ethics to reevaluate the reforms on a yearly basis.

After discussion among the committee members, Lemar formally proposed adding such a regulation to the ordinance — marking one of the most substantial changes proposed at the meeting.

The committee passed the motion unanimously.

Committee members also debated and passed minor language changes and clarifications to the ordinance.

Several committee members said during the discussions that they are still confused about the exact restrictions on gifts to those covered under the code.

According to guidelines passed at the meeting, “gifts shall not include promotional or complimentary tickets or entrance to events sponsored by non-profit organizations, provided that the value of said ticket … does not exceed $100 per event per sponsoring organization.”

During the debate, several committee members proposed potential situations in which their ethics could be questioned. Ward 7 Alderwoman Frances “Bitsie” Clark said she was unsure whether she would be required to pay the difference if she were invited to an event but the ticket had a value of $275.

In response, Perez said according to precedent, as long as the actual value of the food itself is under $100, the gift would not be ethically questionable.

Clark said she would still feel more comfortable going to the Board of Ethics for approval before accepting such gifts.

Perez said it would be impossible for the ordinance to cover every situation. Rather, he said, the ordinance should act as guidelines for the Board of Ethics.

“This just gives you some guidance or clarification about what is unclear,” Perez said. “If you tried to cover every possible situation, this ordinance would be 500 pages long.”

Goldfield said after the meeting that the lack of residents present demonstrates that there is not much concern about corruption among city officials.

“We haven’t had aldermen accused of taking bribes, and there haven’t been ethical scandals,” Goldfield said. “All this legislation is doing is raising the bar.”

During the public-testimony section of the meeting, Paul Nunez, deputy chief of staff to New Haven Mayor John DeStefano Jr., said a lawyer is working to make the ordinance more concise before it is presented to the full Board of Aldermen on Dec. 19.

“We will keep the spirit of the original ordinance amendment, but hopefully the new draft will be more concise,” Nunez said.

Perez said to the committee that the mayor’s office would not make any material changes.

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