Calling Ethics Commission ‘Totally Dysfunctional,’ Chair Proposes New Rules

OLD LYME — The new chair of the town’s Ethics Commission, Jane Cable, has requested increased funding to hire independent legal counsel to rewrite the ethics code for the town. 

Cable, who was appointed to the commission and became chair on Dec. 2, 2020, asked the Board of Selectmen on Tuesday for an increase in the commission budget from $1,900 to $7,500 to cover legal costs. 

“The Ethics Commission when I joined was totally dysfunctional because the code doesn’t give directions for a well-functioning Ethics Commission. It needs more than minor revisions,” said Cable. “It also needs oversight by the Board of Selectmen, which is another revision to the code. The Ethics Commission reports to nobody. It appoints its own members. They don’t even know their terms of office.”

Cable, who is an attorney, said the allocated small amount of $1,900 made her feel she was expected to donate unpaid legal services to the Ethics Commission in an attempt to revise the code. She said the commission may also need funds for administrative work that would otherwise fall to her or other commission members. 

“I can’t write the code for the commission I’m serving on. It won’t take hours and hours of work for a municipal attorney who specializes in this,” she said.

“The Ethics Commission when I joined was totally dysfunctional because the code doesn’t give directions for a well-functioning Ethics Commission. It needs more than minor revisions,” said Cable. “It also needs oversight by the Board of Selectmen, which is another revision to the code. The Ethics Commission reports to nobody. It appoints its own members. They don’t even know their terms of office.”

First Selectman Tim Griswold suggested that the other commission members could help with the work, but Cable said she cannot schedule meetings of the commission until the code is revised. 

“Three of the members are brand new and that includes me. There was a wholesale resignation or dropout from the commission,” she said. “It can’t operate in a silo all by itself. That’s just asking for it to crash and burn again — and nobody will know.”

She said the commission has a complaint to hear but there hasn’t been a full complement of members to hear the complaint until now. 

Griswold said that when the commission was formed, there was an intent to make it independent and “not under the thumb of the selectmen.” The Ethics Commission was formed in 2008, according to records on the town website.  

Lapses and dysfunction

On May 7, 2019, the Ethics Commission voted unanimously to form a sub-committee to look at the language Old Lyme Code of Ethics and to consider potential changes. That was the commission’s only meeting that year and the topic was not on the agenda, but CT Examiner staff was present at the meeting. The minutes for the meeting were never posted on the town website despite repeated requests from CT Examiner. 

The commission voted to form the sub-committee after a 2018 ruling by the commission that an attorney who presented applications to build affordable housing in Old Lyme had failed to apply for a conflict of interest waiver. The commission later vacated that decision based on varying interpretations of Section 43-5 of the Ethics Code. A change in the language would have had an impact on who the town can and cannot hire. 

“You have to walk carefully before you find a violation of the ethics code and the code has to account for that. We all know each other, we all work together, and the code is not subtle enough to account for that. We all have interest in everything that goes on in town. You have to be careful when you define a conflict of interest. We can’t go around pointing fingers at one another and holding hearings and ruining people’s reputations, so I think the code needs a good hard look,” Cable said. 

Selectman Mary Jo Nosal said she supported Cable hiring an independent municipal attorney to revise the ethics code, especially since Cable will be tasked with overseeing it. 

Cable said that overall the drafters of the code did not consider the social structure of a small town like Old Lyme where everyone is connected. 

“You have to walk carefully before you find a violation of the ethics code and the code has to account for that. We all know each other, we all work together, and the code is not subtle enough to account for that. We all have interest in everything that goes on in town. You have to be careful when you define a conflict of interest. We can’t go around pointing fingers at one another and holding hearings and ruining people’s reputations, so I think the code needs a good hard look,” she said. 

Cable agreed to create a budget for the commission that she can present to the Board of Finance in March.

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