Ethics on the agenda of regional councilors

Norwich - The region's planning agency will spend the coming weeks developing a proposal to create a regional ethics board.

Elected officials from towns throughout the region comprise the Southeastern Connecticut Council of Governments, which represents 20 towns in the region. The council has researched the possibility of establishing a regional ethics board in the past. Its executive committee voted to have James S. Butler, the council's executive director, gather past research and prepare a written proposal as to how the board could function.

The idea stems in part from a recent ethics complaint in Montville. The Town Council, which by charter is charged with investigating ethics complaints, considered and later found no probable cause in an ethics complaint one councilor had filed against the council chairwoman.

The process led 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.

Montville Mayor Ronald K. McDaniel Jr. last week was asked by the town council to approach the council of governments about the regional ethics board. McDaniel said implementing this type of system could require a town charter change. The Town Council could retain the power to act on whatever the regional board's ethics recommends.

"I think it probably makes sense to have an independent review," McDaniel said. "At the end of the day, what changes is who does the fact finding."

Some towns in the region, such as Waterford and New London, have their own separate boards of ethics to investigate complaints against town officials or employees.

New London's Board of Ethics was questioned last year by Reid Burdick, a former city councilor, who argued 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.

Ackley alleged that Buscetto improperly interfered in police department operations. Her attorney argued that Buscetto should have recused himself from closed-door discussions the City Council had regarding the allegations.

Burdick's point was that some 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 the ethics complaint.

Salem First Selectman Kevin Lyden, a member of the council of government's executive board, questioned what kind of liability would be involved with the regional ethics board. For example, Lyden was concerned members of the board potentially could become embroiled in a lawsuit if it recommended termination of an employee in another town.

The current system in Salem calls for the first selectman - or a board-designated alternate in the event a grievance involves the first selectman - to review ethics complaints.

"It seems to work for our town," Lyden said.

Butler, in preliminary conversations, recommended against having chief elected officials sit on the regional ethics board. It also would be necessary for participating towns to pass ordinances ceding authority to the regional board.


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