By LIZ BUTTON
The city manager’s failure to disclose his connection to a police commissioner search firm the city hired this November has made some in Rye, including the mayor-elect, question the city’s commitment to discouraging conflicts of interest.
Given the recent climate of scandal in the city, the mere perception of a conflict of interest might as well be a real one, so early disclosure is crucial, critics argue. The city recently hired search firm International City/County Management Asso-ciation at City Manager Scott Pickup’s recommendation. Pick-up is a member of the ICMA and a board member for its state affiliate, the New York State City/County Management Association.
In November, the City Coun-cil approved the hiring of ICMA at a cost of $40,000 to coordinate the search to replace Police Commissioner William Connors, who announced his retirement in September and will leave the position on Jan. 16, 2014.
Mayor-elect Joe Sack, a Republican councilman, said he raised the connection as a potential issue via email with the city manager two weeks ago, after the contract was approved, and expressed his view that Pickup should have at least disclosed the relationship to the council beforehand.
On the roster of state Manage-ment Association officers on the organization’s website, Pickup is listed as the firsst vice president.
Sack argued that, in a community like Rye, with the recent financial fraud at Rye Golf Club, this summer’s controversy over a police uniform bid involving a former auxiliary city police officer and other recent scandals, even the appearance of fraud or a conflict of interest can be problematic and merits disclosure at the very least, whether there is an actual conflict of interest or not.
Such disclosure is even more pertinent in this situation because, as Sack sees it, Pickup conducted, in this case, a “somewhat less-than-expansive effort to solicit other credible vendors on a $40,000 contract.”
Pickup said that, when making the decision, he went to at least three organizations before putting forward ICMA. As an example, he said he looked at a proposal from Collins Recru-itment as well as one from Bennett, the predecessor organ-ization of the firm that originally recommended Con-nors to Rye in 2001. Former Rye City Manager Julia Novak hired Connors through Bennett.
Above all, Pickup said the salient issue is no financial agreement of any kind exists between ICMA—a 501(c)3 organization founded in 1914 to provide support to local government management professionals—and the NYSCMA, a professional organization for municipal officials and administrators, through which members attend meetings and conferences.
The two are wholly distinct organizations that are connected by no more than an affiliation agreement, which ICMA states was created to outline how the two groups could work together on shared programs.
A city municipal officer who is a member of the ICMA receives access to the association’s document library; access to the ICMA job search center; monthly issues of Public Management mag-azine, the ICMA’s official publication; and access to an ethics advisor and personal and professional counseling. Both groups require members to pay dues.
This explanation from the organization itself was contained in an email, obtained by The Rye City Review, that Pickup circulated to the entire City Council after approaching ICMA representatives to ask them about Sack’s query.
According to that email, ICMA said state associations that have affiliation agreements with ICMA only have one tie to the organization: they get to participate in the selection of a representative in the region to serve on ICMA’s board. As included in Pickup’s email to the council, the conflict of interest section of ICMA’s own code states that, because there is no financial association between ICMA and its state counterpart, a person’s status as a board member of the state group, like Pickup, does not create a conflict of interest.
Despite this, the state organization’s code states that members should disclose their ICMA membership when making recommendations to a governing body with regard to hiring ICMA-related firms, if only because of the possibility of an appearance of a conflict of interest.
“That said, the appearance issue is generally offset when there is an open and transparent procurement process used,” the email reads.
But Sack sees the ICMA’s response as unequivocally contrary to how Pickup appeared to handle the procurement process that ultimately resulted in hiring ICMA for the job.
“Even ICMA said that he should have disclosed it, but that sometimes that can be mitigated if there was a very robust selection process,” Sack said. “Any normal person who is looking at the situation will understand that it was poor judgment not to disclose.”
In response to concerns and issues related to last year’s Rye Golf Club scandal, the city also adopted its own conflict of interest policy at the council’s Sept. 11 meeting that city officials and staff are now required to sign and submit to the city every year. Before the golf club scandal, the city had a code of ethics, but it did not require city employees to sign a form.
“Where there are concerns, we’ve tried to make a bright line determination,” Pickup said of the new policy.
The newly adopted policy states a city officer or employee may not receive any financial benefit as the result of a city contract.
It also prohibits a city employee from receiving satisfaction of any financial interest, defined as financial benefits accruing to that official’s dependents; a firm, partnership, or association where that person is a member; or a corporation that person directly controls, is employed by or owns stock in.
The policy does not, however, speak to financial gain acquired by non-profits, such as ICMA.
After Sack raised his concerns to the city manager, another citizen raised the issue to the council and local media via a Dec. 11 email.
Former Police Benevolent Association president Timothy Chittenden argued that, while Pickup might not get paid by ICMA for this specific search, he certainly stands to gain favor with other members for this $40,000 contract.
Outgoing Mayor Douglas Fre-nch, a Republican, responded to the issue in an email to both Sack and Chittenden. In it, he stated Pickup’s email from the state management association circulated to the council rendered the topic “a non-issue.”
“Everybody who is on the [city council] has these business to business relationships. Scott [Pickup] is not profiting off these decisions,” French said.