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Ethical innovation

Published September 17. 2012 4:00AM

The lone Republican on the Montville Town Council, Dana McFee, has a problem with the council having the authority to investigate allegations of ethical misconduct, even conduct involving council members. We do as well.

Mr. McFee recently filed an ethics complaint against council Chairwoman Candy Buebendorf, a Democrat, alleging she sought legal advice from the town attorney on a personal matter. The charge was a bit moldy, Ms. Buebendorf's request for a legal opinion in 2007 as to whether applying for a job in the town's public schools would present a conflict of interest. And, frankly, we see no problem with a council member seeking such an opinion.

But the larger issue is the appropriateness of an inherently political body, the council, providing what should be an objective decision. Ms. Buebendorf and Mr. McFee sat out the ruling, their conflicts too obvious for anyone to deny, but the four other Democrats voted to dismiss the complaint, while the lone unaffiliated council member found probable cause to proceed.

In other words, Democrats in control of the council joined forces to dismiss a complaint against a fellow Democrat, their chairwoman no less. While the decision is probably the right one, the process still stinks.

Mr. McFee wants the town to explore the creation of a nonpartisan ethics commission, which an increasing number of towns are using to evaluate allegations of unethical behavior. Democrats voted down Mr. McFee's motion to discuss the idea, though Ms. Buebendorf deserves credit for being the long Democrat to vote in favor. An independent ethics commission would certainly be preferable to current policy.

But we also take this opportunity to raise an idea we have floated in the past, and which has gotten no traction - creation of a regional ethics commission, probably under the auspices of the Southeastern Connecticut Council of Governments. Participating municipalities would have to pass enabling ordinances ceding authority on ethical issues to a regional commission. Such a commission would have the ability to provide true impartiality. The representative from the town in which a complaint stems could sit out the vote, leaving outside observers with no conflicts of interest to judge.

The commission could also set common ethical standards for all participating towns.

Is this too radical a step for staid southeastern Connecticut? We don't think so.

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