The Toothless Tiger–Ethics Monitor Says City’s Ethics Commission Doesn’t Work, Needs Independence

toothless tiger
Ethics Commission needs fangs.

Robert Wechsler is Director of Research for City Ethics Inc., a non-profit organization that provides advice on local government ethics issue. It was founded by former federal prosecutor Carla Miller. Wechsler has penned a commentary for the organization’s website that he shared with OIB prompted in part by CT Post reporter Brian’s Lockhart’s stories questioning the veracity of the city’s Ethics Commission.

Maybe the city’s Ethics Commission needs an Ethics Commission to set it straight. It’s not a true independent body. Historically, it has proven itself a toothless tiger. Wechsler raised a series of important questions in his commentary. Check it out:

It can never be said too often that the quality of a government ethics code is meaningless. What matters is how the ethics program actually works.

Take Bridgeport, CT for example. It is the largest city in Connecticut, with a population of 150,000. It is a poor city in a rich county, and it has had a history of corruption, including the mayor’s conviction on federal corruption charges a decade ago.

According to an article last Sunday in the Connecticut Post, improvements were made to the ethics code during the investigation of the mayor. Later, the city council added two members to the ethics commission and approved the hiring of a full-time ethics director, who would be the only paid local government ethics professional in the state. A new ethics code was passed in January 2012. And now, the city is going to require annual ethics training. This is clearly an ethics program that is going somewhere.

Except that two of the seats on the ethics commission have been vacant for months, and the five remaining members’ terms all expired two to three years ago. No ethics director was ever actually hired. The new ethics code still does not give the ethics commission any teeth. And required ethics training does not appear to amount to much. According to the EC chair, “Supervisors are to spend 20 to 25 minutes outlining ethics principals in the city code, answering questions and steering employees to city resources like how to file confidential complaints with the commission.” The supervisors are then supposed to provide ethics training to their staffs.

How can someone with 25 minutes of ethics training do training herself? Training the trainer is a reasonable way to save money, but it requires far more training for the trainer. And what about elected officials, board and commission members, the ethics commission? Do they get any ethics training? If so, how much and by whom?

The ethics commission webpage shows no sign of activity. There are no meeting records, and no record of complaints, proceedings, or advisory opinions. There is an ethics complaint hotline number, but the EC’s May 2012 Citizens Guide (mostly about making complaints) makes no mention of it, and the ethics ordinance says that complaints must be in writing, on a form provided.

An article in the Post on Monday does refer to a finding of no probable cause by the ethics commission back in 2010. The matter involved free passes to the city’s big music festival, given by the festival director to all council members. A big problem here is that the ethics commission, which without a director is completely dependent on the city attorney’s office, is not allowed to explain why it found no probable cause. And yet the city attorney feels free to explain it publicly. The article quotes him as saying, “Various city officials, including police, fire, health and parks personnel and the City Council, mayor and staff are provided with all-access passes to permit them the freedom to effectively perform their public duties and responsibilities.”

Of course, public safety officers need access to the grounds during the music festival, and since the festival is held on parks property, parks personnel also have to be present. This is their job. It is not so clear that the council, mayor, and mayoral staff all need free passes. This is exactly the sort of matter that should be discussed publicly by an ethics commission. In fact, it should have taken the form of a request for advice. Or it could have been discussed by the ethics commission on its own initiative. But if no official asked for advice and the EC did not see its role as raising ethics issues in highly visible matters, it should have at least let the matter pass the probable cause stage and let it be discussed in a public hearing, with arguments by both sides. That is if, with only five members, it can reach the required quorum of four and then get a required vote of four, which is intended for a commission of seven members, which it hasn’t had.

In other words, Bridgeport’s ethics program is not working. The city lacks the essential elements of a government ethics program: real ethics training, an independent ethics officer to provide timely advice and guide the volunteer ethics commission, an independent and full ethics commission selected by community organizations, three kinds of disclosure, and the authority to penalize officials and employees who violate the ethics code.



  1. The subject is the actual and practicing low level of attention provided to ethical behavior in City governance. If there were an award or an annual certificate for high aspirational levels plus high achievement levels in support of ethical standards and behavior, would the City qualify? This observation from outside begins to tell us how we look from outside. We need to hear and respond to those messages. They mean something to our neighbors, to those in the County, and to the folks in Hartford and beyond. If you have a blindfold or earmuffs on, you see and hear nothing!!! That does not mean others share a high opinion of the City or its efforts. Perhaps 2013 is a year to get real? Time will tell.

    1. Lennie, your posting is on target. Municipal ethics ordinances are known to be paper tigers.

      In Bridgeport it is taken one step further so even with dedicated people like Joe Ianiello chairing the ethics commission, it is doomed to be meaningless.

      When the ethics ordinance was originally adopted (when I was on the city council), there was independent counsel for the ethics commission. Now, the commission is advised by the city attorney who serves at the pleasure of the mayor and is an active member of the Democratic party organization.

      Not included in Brian Lockhart’s story is mention of the fact the two previous city council presidents endorsed the conducting of annual ‘ethics for elected officials’ sessions for city council members.

      Those sessions ceased with the current council president, Tom McCarthy.

      My recommendation that these ethics training sessions be continued, and McCarthy’s avoidance of the subject, may have contributed to his conclusion I ‘did not work for the council’ he and other council members have been heard to say.

      As JML says, time will tell.

  2. The Ethics Commission is merely a reflection of the Finch administration’s commitment to honest, transparent and conflict-free governance. Given their performance over the last five years, why would we expect anything other than intentional dysfunction?

  3. The training of and practice of ethical public behavior in the public square would help inform the larger community of what ethical behavior comprises. Put Mayor Finch, with advisers Wood, Nunn and Kabel on a panel with expert Anastasi to complete an application for a community ethics award and we would see what is really going on in the City. Nothing!!!

    The only “tip of the hat” of this administration towards anything resembling ethical behavior were the significant number of City Council recusals and separate voting on Federal funds in May 2012. Council approval of a few million dollars from HUD-CDBG for projects reviewed by Citizen Union panel with multiple public hearings, and oversight (and significant changes) by City Council members, and there were half a dozen separate calls for a vote.

    Immediately following was the Council vote on the 2012-13 budget. No recusals for voting (on financial issues including your own pay and that of all your supervisors in City governance, including the President of the Council) and the budget passes on one vote call. Ethical? Not by regional standards, I suggest. Not by Federal standards either, I guess. Check with Alanna. She can explain it in detail, I am sure.

    And those vacant positions on boards and commissions? And the majority of Bridgeport volunteers who are serving on those same boards and commissions well beyond the expiry date of their most current appointment? No problem. According to the Mayor it takes time to do background checks. The police are busy. Isn’t it interesting former Attorney General Blumenthal (now interested in Butler Business School closing now that its legal operation is no longer his supervisory turf as it was as Attorney-General) when addressing the public safety issue of “armed mental illness” has indicated INSTANT BACKGROUND CHECKS are part of the answer. He was talking about an FBI system. Sound good? Actually some politicians like a slower, less responsive and more controlled situation it appears. Time will tell.


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