Lewes Board of Ethics – An oxymoron?
Lewes City Council re-appointed a board in response to two ethics complaints in 2012, alleging violations of the city’s Code of Conduct by a councilperson and city official. The code was enacted to ensure “the propriety and the preservation of public confidence” in government and to “establish ethical standards” for protecting its integrity. The city has its own code, and state law dictated it have a board.
In March 2013, board members received mandatory training from Janet A. Wright, the attorney for the state’s Public Integrity Commission which administers the state ethics program. She stated that even the appearance of impropriety necessitates a decision maker’s recusal from discussing and voting on an issue, adding the official should then leave the room.
The facts in the complaint against the councilperson were that the individual weighed in and voted on the improvement of a street on which the councilperson owns property and lives. The complaint alleges recusal was mandatory for the councilperson. For example, a city committee recently considered improvements to Madison Avenue; a Board of Public Works (BPW) committee member who lives there recused himself. Are there different standards for city council, its subordinate committee, and BPW?
The facts in the second complaint against an appointed city official showed that he fixed a ticket, an action clearly outside his authority. By law, a JP or city alderman has jurisdiction over all traffic violations in the city. The violator must plead his or her case in court before an impartial judge; the city may refuse to prosecute and state its reason therefor; and the parking violation is dismissed. There is a public record of the entire process.
The city official admitted in an email that he ordered the ticket to be removed from the car windshield and voided because the violator thought free parking had been arranged by a group with a meeting in town. The car had been parked more than four hours with an expired meter in a 30-minute restricted zone in front of Azafran Café. The city official refused to answer any questions about the incident, especially whether he or anyone else in city government knew the owner of the vehicle, a high-priced BMW.
A city employee removed the ticket from the windshield in front of four witnesses. One is a legal immigrant, a budding citizen, who commented that it was not fair since he had just paid two parking violations. Whether or not a parking ticket is dismissed should not depend on a call to City Hall. Is that the kind of example our city wants to present to a future citizen?
When a city official fixes tickets, no public record exists. The extent of ticket-fixing and loss of income for the city is impossible to determine without an investigation. The complaint stated that, according to another city employee, ticket-fixing was endemic in City Hall.
Ticket-fixing by a public official not only is unethical, but also illegal. The complaint provided the board with numerous cases of ticket-fixing and its adverse legal consequences in other jurisdictions. The only regret the city official expressed was the ticket-fixing took place too publicly.
In Executive Session at its April 19 public meeting, the board conducted a preliminary inquiry of the complaints. It then dismissed both complaints without providing any rationale. Not only did the board squash the ticket-fixing complaint, but it also has ignored its authority, if not obligation, to refer an alleged illegal activity to local law enforcement authorities.
The board essentially ruled that the documentary evidence in the complaints, backed up by citations to the law and court cases, was insufficient to support the need for investigation. It provided no explanation of the standard applied to make that determination. For example, must the complaint provide probable cause to trigger an investigation or was some other more stringent standard applied?
Additionally, the city solicitor provided legal advice to the board. That seems to be a clear conflict of interest: Would he not defend the councilperson and city official if the board conducted an investigation and hearing? An attorney cannot serve two masters.
Let the citizens of Lewes now decide whether the board fulfilled its duties conscientiously; whether it promotes or undermines public confidence in good government; or whether it is just another example of a decision that does not rock the boat.
Gerald A. Lechliter
Col., US Army (Ret.)