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August 30, 2016
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Sullivan County ethics code considered

Three of the five members of the Sullivan County Board of Ethics have sent letters of resignation to county manager David Fanslau within the past couple of weeks.

This comes after a member of the community accused lawmakers Leni Binder and Jodi Goodman of committing an ethics violation by accepting box seats for performances at Bethel Woods Center for the Arts, which may have had a value of more than $75.
However, a formal complaint has not been filed.

As the legislature moves to re-staff the Board of Ethics, it is also looking at changing the rules of the legislature to allow elected officials the option of being able to abstain because of an “appearance of impropriety” as well as an “actual conflict of interest.”

As the rules now exist, if a legislator abstains on a vote because of the appearance of impropriety the abstention is counted as a yes vote.

County attorney Sam Yasgur told lawmakers at a meeting on July 14 that the current rule “refers to conflict of interest as specifically defined in your current code of ethics, and that definition is very precise, so if you don’t fall within that definition, you can’t abstain, and the gifts issue is not part of conflicts of interest.”

Lawmakers considered changing the rule, but this brought objections from several legislators. Lawmaker Alan Sorensen said it could open the door for legislators to find a perceived conflict of interest and thereby be able to avoid voting on tough issues.

Regarding an abstention counting as a yes vote, lawmaker Ron Hiatt said, “I’ve never seen that anywhere else.” He referred to Roberts Rules of Order and according to that code he said “sometimes an abstention is considered a vote with the majority, sometimes it is considered a non vote and just used to determine whether a quorum exists.”

He added, however, “I think it is important that we vote; it would be very easy for legislators to avoid responsibility by claiming some sort of bias.”

Binder and Goodman both said the matter needs to be cleared up because currently the only way to effectively get an actual abstention, when an appearance of impropriety exists, is for the legislator in question to walk out of the room before a vote is taken. Both said that is not acceptable.

County treasurer Ira Cohen said, “I think you do need the change to the provision that says an abstention is an affirmative vote because that makes no sense at all. But the thing that most bothers me [in the proposed change to the rule]is the provision that says if you disclose the problem that causes you to have to abstain, because there’s either an actual objective conflict or the appearance of impropriety, if you disclose it then you can go ahead and vote. There is something very wrong about that.”

County attorney Sam Yasgur said, “The problem with writing ethics rules is that they come from right here—I’m pointing to my gut for the record—it’s very hard to put it into words. The way the present ethics rules read, you could have taken a gift of $74.99 every single day of the week for your entire tenure, and you don’t even trigger that ethics rule.”

The board agreed to take up the matter again at a later date and consider other proposed changes.