Kohut: City’s Redemption Requires Relevant Ethics Commission

The city’s Ethics Commission is a toothless tiger. What’s the point of having one if it’s nothing more than a gum job? This is not new. The Ethics Commission has gone through the motions for more than a decade, a mayor with his hand out, another with substance abuse issues on the job, City Council members’ dubious conduct. In 1986, the Ethics Commission was created by executive order of Mayor Tom Bucci who fulfilled a campaign pledge–following a series of ethical lapses by predecessors–to monitor the conduct of elected and appointed officials. Members of the Ethics Commission are appointed by the mayor and ratified by the City Council. See Ethics Commission homepage here.

In Bridgeport, legal counsel has rationalized it’s okay for city employee members of the City Council to approve their own wages and benefits, something that cannot happen on a state or federal level. When former Republican Town Chair Marc Delmonico filed a complaint with the Ethics Commission documenting council members received an excessively good time, free of charge, by the promoter of the annual hippie fest at Seaside Park, The Gathering of the Vibes, commission members dismissed the allegations. OIB has received several inquiries lately about the lack of status of the Ethics Commission so we asked former member Jeff Kohut, policy wonk extraordinaire, to share his observations for an ethics fix for the Ethics Commission. His commentary follows:

Having served on Bridgeport’s Ethics Commission for five years (10/2005-10/2010), and having participated in Bridgeport’s broad-based multi-target “good-government” movement for the better part of the past twenty years, I can say, without reservation, part of Bridgeport’s redemption must include the creation of state and municipal (Bridgeport) statutes that will mandate and enable the creation of a Bridgeport (et al.) municipal ethics commission charged with (and duly enabled thereof) the creation of politically credible municipal government.

Presently, the city charter, enabled by state statute, allows the creation of a mayoral/city-council appointed ethics commission charged with monitoring ethical standards regarding the discharging of duties of municipal elected and appointed officials, as well as hired city contractors/vendors with regard to city business. The duties and powers of the ethics commission are described in section 2.38 of the city’s Ordinance Code, by which the activities of the ethics commission are proscribed.

[I use the word proscribed–which of course means “limited/forbidden,” because Ordinance Section 2.38 describes a very (deliberately) limited role in regard to the ethical policing “powers” with which the ethics commission is charged per the “enabling” city ordinance.]

The ethics commission is charged with the investigation of ethics complaints filed against city officials/employees/vendors, but it is given no resources for the proper, independent pursuit of such complaints; indeed, the commission is dependent upon the City Attorney’s Office and the Office of Internal Affairs of the Bridgeport Police Department to investigate such charges–a situation, in light of a mayorally appointed commission that might be described as “incestuous” and anything but “independent” (also impractical, due to the already overburdened staff of both offices–investigations often went undone, were incomplete, or languished for months, even years during my tenure). (And, indeed, I witnessed, first-hand, a total lack of objectivity and resolve in the “pursuit” of several important ethics issues/complaints involving situations with, among other areas of concern, city land-use board appointees.)

The ethics commission is also charged with the investigation/recommendation for appointment of mayorally designated appointees to city boards. But again, the investigation of such persons for appointment to mayorally appointed boards rests with the OIA/BPD and City Attorney’s Office–an arrangement which is, to reiterate, anything but objective and efficient. The final decision regarding the appointment of such recommended persons rests with the city council, regardless of the commission’s findings/recommendations. There were several occasions during my tenure on the commission where persons the commission voted against appointment for reasons such as glaring conflicts of interest were still approved for appointment by the city council–even for such sensitive boards as Planning and Zoning.

The “powers” of the Ethics Commission are non-existent. The commission can only recommend or render findings–it has no deciding role in regard to the action/disposition of matters with which it has been charged to render findings (ethics complaints) or make recommendations (board appointments). And the ethics ordinance allows exchanges of gifts and gratuities that can be considered “significant” directly between city officials, employees, and vendors; the situation is much more questionable as it applies to monetary and gift exchanges/business relationships between family members and close friends of city officials/employees.

While many would agree ethical behavior should be judged by starting with the mere appearance of impropriety, the Bridgeport ethics ordinance allows not just an appearance of impropriety, but far more (in the final analysis).

Several things must be done in regard to creating a city ethics commission that is capable of preventing activities that undermine the faith of the business and political communities in the legal/ethical safety of becoming involved in Bridgeport. In short, here are the five major steps that must be taken to help change Bridgeport’s compromised image and the economic drag thereof on Bridgeport through a city ethics commission:

1. Create a provision for an elected Ethics Commission through charter change. (This will help to increase the independence/objectivity of the commission.)

2. Rewrite (per a designated duty of an elected ethics commission) the ethics ordinance to give the commission real “teeth,” e.g., give the commission the power to subpoena and mandate testimony where properly filed ethics complaints are found to have merit, and to render prescribed disciplinary measures against city officials/employees/vendors that are found to have violated (tightened/expanded) official ethical standards. (This would apply in a complementary manner with the consideration of the legal ramifications of ethics violations.)

3. Mandate the apportioning of adequate resources (by charter change) to the commission in order to carry out thorough investigations of complaints/board appointees. This should include giving the commission the resources to hire clerical, investigative, and legal staff which would be completely independent of the mayor’s office. (The City Attorney’s Office and OIA/BPD should be out of the picture.)

4. Mandate public hearings/public access to commission meetings and complaint/board-appointment hearings where ethics issues/commission matters/complaints are found to have merit/probable cause in regard to the public’s right/need to know about such issues/complaints.

5. Create a system–including a designated, independent Ethics Commission website–that encourages/facilitates the reporting of ethics issues/official complaints by the public and city whistleblowers in regard to the questionable ethical behavior of city officials/employees/vendors. (The reporting system must protect both the accuser and the accused pending probable cause hearings. The system should also allow/encourage official/employee/public expression of observations/ideas in regard to city ethics standards/practices.)

An effective, credible, standard-setting Bridgeport ethics commission could go a long way in obviating the legitimate and contrived concerns of the business and political communities in regard to involvement in Bridgeport and the advocacy for state and federal assistance in the restarting of our economic engine.

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  1. *** Ethics committee may look good on paper as far as the city of Bpt having one with actual up-to-date membership terms, etc. but it’s really got “no” juice nor real jurisdiction over most reviewed issues; in the end just an opinion, no? ***

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