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Regional ethics commission aims to serve towns when conflicts exist

By Jeffrey A. Johnson

Publication: theday.com

Published November 21. 2012 4:00PM   Updated November 22. 2012 6:11PM

Norwich — The region's planning agency will create an ethics commission that will help towns resolve complaints about the ethics of public officials and employees.

The Southeastern Connecticut Council of Governments, comprised of elected officials from 20 local towns, voted Wednesday to create the five- to seven-member commission.

It will not take the place of ethics commissions or boards that already exist in local towns, but rather will offer towns an alternate way to resolve a complaint.

The regional commission is designed to provide another level of review and to prevent partisan politics or other conflicts of interest from complicating disputes.

"Our ethics commission thought it was a great idea," Preston First Selectman Robert Congdon said. "They felt it would be very hard to unbiasedly adjudicate certain issues. They would welcome having the opportunity in those cases to forward it to a regional board."

James S. Butler, the council of governments' executive director, prepared a detailed report outlining the regional ethics commission's role and duties.

Mayors and first selectmen would not be allowed to sit on the commission, which first would have to deem a complaint appropriate for regional review. The commission could then use a retired attorney or police officer, for example, to investigate an ethics complaint. An investigator would be paid by the town in which the complaint originated.

The commission would then hold a closed hearing on the matter, unless the accused person wished it to be public. The commission would have the power to subpoena witnesses and to collect evidence. Ultimately, it would issue a recommendation, and it would be up to the town to accept that recommendation and dole out any punishment it deemed necessary.

Research done by Butler showed the idea of a regional ethics commission stretched back to 2007. A 2009 survey of the council's member towns showed 10 were interested in the idea. Another survey a year later showed lukewarm support. Only nine towns responded and only four expressed interest.

Colchester First Selectman Gregg Schuster said ethics complaints in his town are rare, and he felt the regional commission may complicate matters.

"I like the idea of regionalism if it replaces something and not adds to it," Schuster said. "If you want to abolish your local ethics commission and go with a regional one, that's fine."

The push for a regional commission grew from an ethics complaint in Montville. The town council, which by charter serves as the town's ethics commission, considered the complaint and later found no probable cause in a complaint one councilor filed against the council chairwoman.

The process led Councilor Dana McFee, who filed the complaint, to argue that the current system leads to conflicts of interest when the council is required to investigate one of its own.

New London's Board of Ethics was questioned last year by Reid Burdick, a former city councilor, who argued that the board had a conflict of interest when it dealt with a complaint police Chief Margaret Ackley filed against then-City Councilor Michael Buscetto III.

Burdick argued that members of the Board of Ethics had either supported or opposed Buscetto in his run for mayor and as a result had a conflict in deciding the matter. Ackley eventually dropped her complaint.

Butler underscored two major differences with the new commission when compared with past proposals: Town participation will not be mandatory, and mayors or first selectmen will not be allowed to sit on the commission. The council is expected to accept nominations for members.

jeff.johnson@theday.com

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