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Montville councilor sees problems with town's ethics probes

By Jeffrey A. Johnson

Publication: The Day

Published September 12. 2012 4:00AM

Montville - A town councilor is calling for the formation of an ethics commission that would investigate alleged unethical behavior of town employees and elected officials.

The Town Council is currently responsible for investigating such matters and has the power to remove the people in question from their positions or offices.

Dana McFee, the lone Republican councilor, argued at Monday's council meeting that the current system is flawed. He said an ethics commission would eliminate a situation in which the council would have to investigate one of its own if a complaint is filed against a councilor.

McFee recently filed an ethics complaint against council Chairwoman Candy Buebendorf, a Democrat, in which he alleged she sought the legal advice of the town attorney in a personal matter and had the attorney opinion mailed to her home. The council ultimately dismissed the complaint after it ruled there was no probable cause for it to go forward.

"I think in the future when we have an ethics complaint and it starts to get voted along political lines, it's whatever party is in power at the time (that wins out)," McFee said. "It's going to feel like ethics don't apply to them. In the future it shouldn't be a burden on the council."

McFee alleged that Buebendorf solicited the town attorney in 2007 for a legal opinion as she considered whether it would create a conflict of interest if she applied for a job in the town's public schools. Buebendorf, who was first elected to the council in 2005, is a civics teacher at RHAM High School in Hebron.

Councilors Billy Caron, Chuck Longton, Gary Murphy and Laura Tanner, all Democrats, voted there was no probable cause for the complaint to move forward. Councilor Rosetta Jones, who is not affiliated with a political party, voted there was probable cause, while Buebendorf and McFee were both removed from the ethics proceedings.

McFee made a motion Monday to discuss the formation of an ethics commission, but the motion was voted down by Caron, Longton, Murphy and Tanner. Buebendorf and Jones joined McFee in voting for the discussion.

Murphy said Tuesday he believes in the current system in which the council investigates ethics complaints. He said McFee's assertion that politics comes into play would not necessarily be alleviated by an ethics commission. Murphy said that an ethics commission could also be politically charged.

"Just because you didn't like the outcome doesn't mean it didn't work," he said of McFee and the Buebendorf complaint. "The process is there."

According to a 2009 state report by a task force commissioned to investigate municipal ethics, 124 of 169 towns in the state have some sort of ethics code. Approximately 78 towns have either an ethics commission or some other avenue to resolve ethics complaints.

Under the current guidelines outlined in the town charter, once the council finds probable cause in an ethics case, it must set a hearing for the people in question to have a chance to provide their side of the story.

The council can ultimately move to reprimand the person orally or in writing. Or it can move to remove the people in question from their positions or elected offices.

jeff.johnson@theday.com

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