Fed up with corruption, both local and state lawmakers are tackling ethics reform that would punish those who abuse government positions for financial gain.
But while the state Senate last week unanimously approved a bipartisan compromise, efforts at the local level are likely to be incremental. Aldermen would like to revoke pensions from those who commit felonies on the job, but since pensions are considered part of contracts for employees covered by collective-bargaining agreements, changes may have to win the approval of unions if they are to become law.
Still, a resolution passed by the aldermanic Finance Committee on April 9 — which charges a new aldermanic sub-committee with drafting language for a “bad-boy” clause in city ordinance — could influence later negotiations with unions. Mayor John DeStefano Jr. indicated publicly in February that he wants to see such language, which would revoke pensions for those who commit felonies on the job, included in all future contracts with city employees.
Aldermen said at the finance hearing earlier this month that the bill would likely bear similarities to legislation now in the works in Hartford, which would require the state attorney general to ask a judge to lower or revoke the pensions of employees who commit a job-related felony such as embezzlement, bribery or felonious theft.
The city’s push for ethics reform is intended in part to help avoid a repeat of a scandal that has consumed the New Haven Police Department since last spring. Lt. William “Billy” White and Detective Clarence Willoughby were arrested on corruption-related charges last March and this past February, respectively. The city tried to strip White of his pensions, but an arbitrator ruled that the city could not do so because he had already filed for retirement before the NHPD could fire him.
Ward 5 Alderman Jorge Perez, who worked on the resolution that was approved by the finance committee, said he does not think the bad-boy clause should be up for debate.
“We should not have to give something back in the bargaining process,” Perez said after the April 9 hearing. “It’s not negotiable in my opinion.”
Perez and Finance Committee Chair Yusuf Shah stressed that both the state attorney general and secretary of state had testified that such a bad-boy law would withstand challenge in court, and the state would back the city if it went through with the intended changes — although the city has, as of yet, formulated no specific wording.
But while aldermen who wish to see legislation affecting both union and nonunion employees said the attorney general’s testimony last spring supports the implementation of a bad-boy clause, the city’s top lawyer in charge on labor negotiations said he does not know if the aldermen have the authority to pass such a bill without going through negotiations with the unions.
“I’m not sure where the Board of Aldermen will get the authority [to revoke pensions],” Labor Relations Director Emmet Hibson said. “I don’t see much difference between pensions and other benefits. However, the Attorney General has given a legal opinion that I have not seen or reviewed. If the attorney general is advising [the Board of Aldermen], then they have their own independent lawyers doing their thing.”
Larry Amendola, president of Local 3144, said the unions would likely be amenable to the implementation of a bad-boy clause — as long as the city does not “throw things down our throat.”
“It’s not a bad idea, but they can’t implement it without talking with us,” he said. “Nothing can get changed before 2010 unless both parties agree. … We have always tried to be helpful, but if they try to just implement things [unilaterally], they could have a major problems.”
Board of Aldermen President Carl Goldfield said he remains unsure whether the aldermen have the power to revoke pensions without first negotiating with the local unions.
“If it’s in the contract, we won’t be able to do it, but if it’s not, it falls in the scope of a lot of things the Board of Aldermen can do,” Goldfield said. “We would never violate a labor contract … but I haven’t seen the legal analysis. I’m keeping an open mind — something should be done, but I doubt we can do it unilaterally.”
Perez added that depending on what legislation the committee devoted to writing the specific resolution actually decides, the law may ultimately apply only to non-union employees and elected officials — an incremental step in the right direction.
“We expect employees not to commit felonies,” he said. “Even if we cannot apply it to everyone, there is a good chunk of people to whom we can. And once it becomes ordinance, then every union contract will have to have it included.”
The state law came in large part as a response to the corruption controversy surrounding former Gov. John Rowland and other officials in his administration; Rowland resigned from his post in 2004 during an investigation of his alleged corruption and pleaded guilty in December 2004 to accepting gifts worth over $100,000 in exchange for political favors.