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Judging ethics regionally

Published September 21. 2011 4:00AM

In a recent letter to the New London Ethics Board, Reid Burdick, a man long active in city politics and its civic life, makes the argument that all the members of the board have their own conflicts of interest when it comes to assessing a complaint filed against Councilor Michael Buscetto III.

While the board has not made public the nature of the complaint, attorney Shelley L. Graves told this newspaper it involves her contention that Mr. Buscetto should have recused himself from the closed-door council discussions concerning the allegations made by her client, Police Chief Margaret Ackley, that Mr. Buscetto improperly interfered in police department operations.

Mr. Buscetto, recently defeated in his bid for the Democratic primary to run for mayor, has denied the chief's allegations and insists he has every right to be part of the council discussions. It's a complex situation. Mr. Buscetto deserved the chance to defend himself to fellow councilors, yet if discussions turned to the best legal strategy for the city, Mr. Buscetto could have found himself in a conflicted position. What is in his best interests may not align with the city's best interests.

But that's not what this editorial is about.

It is about the inherent problems with ethics panels in relatively small communities, such as New London. Without going into every detail, Mr. Burdick, who himself has served on many boards and commissions, notes that arguably every Ethics Board member has a "personal conflict" because they've either supported Mr. Buscetto politically, or his opponents, or voiced opinions on the performance of Chief Ackley.

While we won't assess the degree to which each board member may or may not be in conflict, particularly since Mr. Buscetto is no longer a candidate for anything, Mr. Burdick does raise a pertinent point. In smaller communities ethics boards are bound to find themselves with conflicts, particularly if a prominent individual is either filing the complaint or the subject of it.

This is why we once again toss out the idea of a regional ethics board, with representatives from each community, run under the auspices of the Southeastern Connecticut Council of Governments. If a complaint involves a New London official, that city's representative could sit out the proceeding. Participating municipalities would have to pass a standardized ethical ordinance that accepts the authority of the regional board. The board could also play an educational role, clarifying for all communities what constitutes unethical behavior.

It makes sense to us.

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