Conflict of interest waiver proposal draws heat

French

The city’s new conflict of interest policy is on its way toward completion, according to Mayor Douglas French. The City Council entertained the idea of amending the city’s Code of Ethics to include a conflict of interest policy after the financial scandal at the Rye Golf Club broke last fall. File photo

By LIZ BUTTON
The city’s latest draft of a first of its kind conflict of interest policy includes a  provision that allows requests to waive certain conditions of the policy, an aspect of the proposal that has been criticized by some on the City Council.

Updating the city’s Code of Ethics by amending the local law to include such a policy was first proposed by Republican Mayor Douglas French last October in the wake of the Rye Golf Club scandal.

Without many checks and balances over management of the city-owned enterprise, ousted golf club manager Scott Yandrasevich was allegedly able to siphon hundreds of thousands of member dollars into his own pocket via trumped-up purchase orders believed to be submitted to the city over a six-year period through a series of shell companies, the prominent one being RM Staffing.

According to Mayor French, the city’s Board of Ethics is currently reviewing the proposed conflict of interest form, which, if approved by the City Council, would be filed yearly by public officials and certain city staff, including the mayor, City Council, department heads and assistant department heads. The city is also considering requiring members of the Board of Fire Wardens and the governing body of the auxiliary police to file the agreement yearly as well.

Other members of the city’s boards, committees and commissions would not be required to file a conflict of interest form annually. The policy strictly defines terms like “relative,” “household member,” “financial benefit,” “outside employer” and “interest,” and includes a conflict of interest form for vendors, as well as an updated oath of office card for members of city boards and commissions.

French said City Attorney Kristen Wilson compiled the policy from several sources, researching other conflict of interest documents from other municipalities as well as at the state level.

Former Democratic Mayor John Carey sent an email to the City Council before its Aug. 5 meeting informing them that one element of the proposed conflict of interest policy was in danger of usurping the rights of Rye citizens.

In a column he wrote for the Aug. 9 edition of The Rye Sound Shore Review, Carey criticized the aspect of the conflict of interest policy that states the city manager can grant waivers from the policy to city employees or department heads, and the Board of Ethics can grant waivers to elected or appointed officials.

Councilman Joe Sack, a Republican who is running for mayor this year, cited Carey’s wealth of experience in these matters and said he was grateful the former mayor raised the problematic nature of the issue of waivers.

Sack said confidence has been eroded in city government since the Rye Golf Club scandal and other troubling episodes involving City Manager Scott Pickup, but the purpose of a well-intentioned policy is undermined if these waivers are granted by the city manager himself. According to the policy, the city manager may seek an advisory opinion from the Board of Ethics on such decisions.

The City Council adapted the policy at their Aug. 5 session to state that the council shall be notified of any waiver request, before the issue is transferred to the Board of Ethics.

“That is exactly why we have a Board of Ethics,” French said. “To hear these types of issues. The Board of Ethics is an objective independent body so if there is a matter to sit down and review, they’re the appropriate body.”

Republican Councilwoman Laura Brett noted the recent controversy involving auxiliary Rye City police officer John Holmes, in which Holmes allegedly submitted falsified documents to the city in order to win a bid for his company New England Sportswear to provide police uniforms for the department. Holmes was brought up on criminal charges of offering a false instrument for filing and criminal possession of a forged document, both felonies.

“There are a lot of these relationships that I must say I was really not aware of until I learned about the uniform bid issues,” Brett said.

But French said that the situation with Holmes did not specifically strengthen the sense of immediacy to implement a conflict of interest policy. In fact, conflict of interest had nothing to do with the alleged deception perpetrated by Holmes, who is no longer an officer employed by the city, the mayor said.

Currently, according to the city charter, an officer or employee of the city is not permitted to make personal investments in enterprises that may be directly involved in decisions to be made by that employee or  official, or would otherwise create conflict between his or her public duty and private interest.

Additionally, no city officials or employees are permitted to obtain other employment that might impair the “independence of judgment” in the exercise of  official duties.

When it comes to the policy, Sack said something is better than nothing.

“We want to make sure whatever we do has meaning and is effective. We don’t want this just to be window dressing…something to check off so that someone can claim that they have retaken control of the situation,” he said.

Contact: liz@hometwn.com