Westerly Town Council tries to reverse voters mandate to create a town ethics commission

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Nearly a year ago, voters in Westerly, RI approved a charter revision that established a local ethics commission. The Town Council was mandated to create that commission, but in the months since have debated the merits of the commission instead, and now are asking voters to eliminate it.

Calling the provision redundant, it wants to replace the local ethics commission with language requiring all elected officials and town employees to be subject to the state code of ethics. That language, however, is redundant. The state Constitution says: “All elected and appointed officials and employees of state and local government, of boards, commissions and agencies shall be subject to the code of ethics.”

While the vote to again place the local ethics commission before voters was six to one, there was some division on the council, with at least one councilor believing voters will reject the effort, another wanting the appointment of a Charter Revision Commission to study the issue.

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Those outright opposing a local ethics commission said that it was not only duplicative of the state ethics board, but costly, although none provided any specific cost projections.

Local ethics commissions are not uncommon around the country, even where there is a strong state ethics code and commission. Many Connecticut communities have local ethics codes and commissions.

Many independent organizations tout the importance of local oversight, from Columbia Law School’s Center for the Advancement of Public Integrity to California’s Institute for Local Government.

“The very nature of small municipalities makes them susceptible to corruption,” said Columbia’s Center for the Advancement of Public Integrity in a publication, “Fighting ‘Small Town’ Corruption, How to Obtain Accountability, Oversight, and Transparency.”

The small size and workforce of small municipalities, the center says, does “not allow for the kind of oversight and enforcement mechanisms of larger cities, state governments, and the federal government.” Small towns cannot rely upon “oversight from county-level or state oversight mechanisms,” except in specific complaints deemed “important enough for higher-level officials to pursue.”

Ethics codes set a high standard, says the Institute for Local Government “because public trust and confidence is vital to the strength of a democratic system…even though public officials may feel at times that some of these high standards of conduct are unduly burdensome or intrusive of their private lives, they must accept that adhering to these standards, including broad financial disclosure rules for gifts and income, is simply part of the process of public service.”

Why the attention on local ethics codes and commissions?

Newspapers and the internet are replete with claims of the most corrupt, from Crystal City, a Texas town as famed for its Popeye statues as a government that has seen nearly every elected official charged by the FBI; to Bell, California, where a city administrator awarded himself a $787,000 a year pay raise.

Rhode Island has been infamous for the Mayor Buddy Cianci years and corruption within his Providence City administration, and most recently North Providence is on a list by a Web Site, Mandatory, of the most corrupt towns in America.

Of North Providence, the Web Site said: “With a population of 32,000, North Providence is quaint and bucolic on the surface, but it boasts a staggering amount of corruption. In 2011, three city councilmen were indicated on charges of selling votes for cash and the police chief was busted for stealing $714 from a woman’s purse and trying to hide it from investigators.”

Here’s a few more of Mandatory’s “award” winners. To see the whole list, see Mandatory’s website at http://www.mandatory.com/living/1048160-the-10-most-epic-small-town-corruption-scandals.

  • Bell, California: A town of a little over 35,000, where a law was passed exempting them from salary caps, resulting in City Councilors raising their salaries to more than $80,000 a year. According to the Web Site, the City Administrator, Robert Rizzo, gave himself a pay raise to $787,000, with 28 weeks of paid vacation and “secreted away millions more in city money and private accounts for his retirement.” The Los Angeles Times uncovered the scandal. Rizzo was sentenced to 12 years in prison and ordered to make restitution of $8.8 million.
  • Harlowtown, Montana: The Web Site reports that Lynn Rosenberg, who ran the office of Public Assistance for Wheatland, County, created bogus welfare recipients, stealing hundreds of thousands of dollars in fraudulent benefits. Her husband was the sheriff of the county, and won reelection after she went to jail.
  • Whitley County, Kentucky: Sheriff Lawrence Hodge, the Web Site said, “illegally profited from his office to the tune of $350,000, primarily by taking guns and drugs that he confiscated from criminals and selling them back on the street. He also wrote checks to himself from the city, allegedly to fund undercover drug busts that never happened.” The corruption was uncovered by the Times-Tribune.

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