Welcoming a Regional Ethics Commission

We take great satisfaction in learning that the Southeastern Connecticut Council of Governments has approved the creation of a Regional Ethics Commission. This a proposal that The Day has editorially supported for several years now. Its adoption once again demonstrates that our regional COG, consisting of the chief executives of all the towns and cities in southeastern Connecticut, is a state leader among councils of government. Our local COG has once more demonstrated a willingness to move beyond paying lip service to regionalism by moving into the realm of genuine action.

Our regional COG benefits from the veteran leadership of Executive Director James S. Butler. Heading into the tricky and potentially controversial territory of ethical misconduct is not a convenient place to go for an agency trying to keep the leaders of the 20 participating cities, towns and boroughs happy. Yet to his credit, Mr. Butler recognized in his memorandum to the COG Executive Committee that "the time is ripe for the SCCOG to form a Regional Ethics Commission."

Mr. Butler noted that COG members have "indicated they wanted it to be the 'go to' regional agency on a number of issues. I view the formation of a Regional Ethics Commission as one example of the SCCOG stepping up to effectuate that goal."

There are a number of reasons a Regional Ethics Commission makes sense. Southeastern Connecticut is a place of small towns and cities. The number of people who become involved in public policy, from elected officials to those serving on appointed boards and commissions, is smaller still. In our communities the odds are great that an individual who faces an ethics complaint or raises an ethical question will have some personal or professional connection with individuals on the local ethics commission. Turning to a regional commission greatly reduces, if not eliminates, these potential conflicts.

In many smaller communities there are not enough ethical complaints or questions to keep a board busy. This has led to ethics commission failing to meet regularly, with members becoming inactive and vacancies left unfilled, and when needed unprepared to act.

A regional commission will create a standard code of ethics that towns and cities throughout the region can adopt, providing a universal understanding of appropriate ethical standards and clear codes of conduct, assuring that when questionable actions involve officials or employees in multiple towns, all will be playing by the same rules.

Under the proposal adopted last week, the COG will form a 5- to 7-member commission. No mayors or first selectmen will sit on the commission. It will contract with a retired police investigator, retired attorney or other appropriately trained individual to assist it in investigations. Participating towns will share the cost of retaining an investigator and a town referring a complaint to the commission will pay the hourly cost for investigative work.

Towns that do not have an ethics panel can, by ordinance, give that authority to the regional panel. Towns and cities that want to retain their own ethics commission could ask the regional commission to undertake a review should they confront a matter that because of some inherent conflict is best reviewed by a non-local panel.

Any decision by the Regional Ethics Commission would come in the form of an advisory ruling to the legislative body or other appropriate board or individual in the town from which the complaint or question originated. The appropriate agency or department within the municipality would be responsible for any enforcement or disciplinary action against a respondent. Given that the advisory ruling would come from an impartial, regional commission we would expect local authorities to show deference to its conclusions.

Ultimately, we would like to see the Regional Ethics Commission have the authority to impose its decisions, not simply advise, but we understand that would take enabling state legislation and likely acquiescence from member towns. In the meantime, creation of this regional commission is an important first step. We strongly urge member towns to cooperate with and fully utilize this new commission.

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