Taking Stock of Ethics in Old Lyme

in Editorials

There are, at most, two degrees of separation in the State of Connecticut – less in a small New England town like Old Lyme – so it should come as no surprise to anyone that sitting on an ethics board is a thankless task.

Given how rarely the town of Old Lyme’s Ethics Commission actually meets – the last public meeting was on May 7, 2019 – you couldn’t be blamed for wondering whether a town ethics commission is even necessary.

In fact, as of 2009 only 70 of Connecticut’s 169 towns had even set up a board of ethics. Old Lyme formed its own only in 2008.

Few if any towns– at least judging by a 2014 Office of Legislative Research report – adopted particularly complex or byzantine rules related to the office. In most cases members are simply appointed, with terms limits, by the Board of Selectmen.

So, you might wonder why on earth Old Lyme residents are being asked to vote at the Annual Town Meeting on the lexical monstrosity excerpted below…

One wonders how, when, and why exactly the town arrived at the above ‘correction,’ given that there have been no public meetings of the Ethics Commission to discuss it.

And in truth, reading and re-reading the text amendment, I’m not sure I fully understand the entire purpose or full result of the change.

At the last meeting of the Board of Selectmen, Tim Griswold, the newly-elected First Selectman of Old Lyme, explained the amendment as an effort to address lapsed appointments to the Ethics Commission:

“What happened when they failed to appoint and reappoint, the terms lapsed,” Griswold said. “And they were no longer members technically. I think they kept meeting, but they were not actually bona fide members. So by changing the ordinance to provide that if somebody’s term ends and they were not duly reappointed or had someone appointed in their place, the person whose term lapsed would continue until such time as they were properly reappointed or someone new came on. That way we have continuity.”

At the very least, before the town votes yea or nay on January 27, it might be useful to understand which meetings or decisions involved “not actually bona fide members,” to use Griswold’s turn of phrase. Does the town need to revisit or re-vote past decision-making?

A May 7th Meeting

Also important to consider is the last meeting of the Ethics Commission on May 7, 2019, when members voted unanimously to form a sub-committee to examine — and possibly change — language in the Old Lyme Code of Ethics.

After a number of months, and requests by CT Examiner, the minutes of that May 7 meeting are still not public. Nor does the posted agenda — which fails to reference any substantive reason to hold a meeting — help.

Cate Hewitt, who attended the May 7 meeting, explained to me that the ethics meeting was called to resolve issues raised when the commission chose to reverse an earlier finding of a conflict of interest based on conflicting readings of Section 43-5 of the Ethics Code.

Also at issue, and unresolved, is whether the Connecticut Code of Professional Conduct supersedes the town’s own code of ethics.

“Strictly reading by some high-powered attorneys, we misinterpreted our own code and therefore, we vacated our original decision,” explained commission chair Robert Staab. “We want to clarify it so that this doesn’t happen again.”

Staab described the task of the sub-committee comprised of himself, Mike O’Brien and Dwayne Basler, in no uncertain terms:

“We think that our great donation to the town is to clarify, to make sure we don’t have issues in the future that might be confusing to people.”

Does the January 27 vote put the cart before the horse? Should the commission simply be dissolved (and perhaps be reformed)? Can we do better than this obvious legal kludge, which appears to introduce ambiguities all of its own? Why are we amending just the term limits if there are other changes that need to be made? And how exactly is one issue solved through a sub-committee, and the other through an entirely different process? Should we simply hold our noses, vote, and move on?

I have a feeling that either way we’ll be returning to the issue after the vote on Monday.