The question of the ethics commission returns to Madison
By Jesse Williams / Zip06.com • 05/25/2021 3:39 PM EST
Just over two years ago, Madison’s lack of an ethics commission was at the center of the campaign season. As the city prepares for another municipal election season, the issue is once again in the spotlight.
In 2019, questions about disclosure and conflicts of interest arose around a member of the Energy and Efficiency Committee and new charges were brought against the administration of the former premier coach Tom Banisch (right). Although no evidence has been made of anything untoward, corrupt or illegal, the current First Selectmen Peggy Lyons (D) and many others have advocated for the creation of an ethics commission. who could make objective decisions on such matters, reassure the public and advise officials on how to avoid even the appearance of conflict. Such a commission could also rule when officials or politicians spread disinformation, as many believed this also happened in 2019.
While Lyons has said she would like to leave the possibility of an ethics commission to an ongoing charter review panel, former state official and head coach Noreen Kokoruda (right) said the problem had essentially been solved almost ten years ago, and the current Board of Directors of Selectmen (BOS) could put it to rest before it becomes another critical point of the election year.
Kokoruda said that around 2009, a bipartisan group of prominent Madison citizens, including former elected officials Peter Pardo and Ed Dowling (the current chairman of the Madison Police Commission), had come up with a comprehensive proposal that would have created a ethics commission.
But apparently this proposal was never approved, although Kokoruda said nothing was preventing the current BOS from relaunching and approving the proposal.
“What’s really embarrassing is that things are slipping through the cracks,” said Kokoruda. “It’s not a charter issue… We have a great report. There’s no reason they can’t accept it and vote on it.
Lyons in fact revived the issue, which had been somewhat abandoned amid the chaos of the pandemic, in his State of the City address in January. In emails to The Source, she added that she planned to take the matter to a BOS meeting on May 11 after Kokoruda spoke publicly at another meeting.
The ethics issue was not addressed at this meeting and Lyons had not responded to a follow-up email at the time of going to press.
Madison’s charter briefly states that “Selectmen’s board of directors may appoint an ethics committee of up to five members”, without further details or mention of the powers or responsibilities of that committee.
In 2009, the state investigated municipalities and found that less than half had an ethics commission. A 2019 bill requiring specific ethics policies in each city was passed by the Connecticut State Senate, but later died in the lower house.
Kokoruda said she strongly believes that the charter should not impose anything unless it is necessary, and that an ethics commission created by ordinance is more flexible, responsive and simpler.
“Anything you can omit from the charter you should do,” she said. “The charter, by design, is heavy. We want it to be that way; it is very serious.
The Source obtained a copy of the city’s 2009 report – a roughly nine-page document that describes the potential ethics commission’s primarily advisory role. As described, it would be made up of five members appointed directly by the BOS, with no more than three members from a single political party.
Any Townsperson can lodge an ethics complaint with this commission, which will issue recommendations or dismiss the complaint after an investigation, which will last a maximum of 90 working days. City officials, or anyone bound by the city’s ethics policy, could also request an advisory opinion on any commission action using a standard form.
The document would also require officials to sign and acknowledge the city’s ethics policy when hired or appointed, and adds a reference to this policy in the oath of office of elected officials.
Using the 2009 plan would be another way to avoid politicization, Kokoruda added, as it would be difficult to present this document as willfully advancing a politician’s interest more than a decade after it was written. Creating that plan for the commission was also a non-partisan process, she said, and was aimed at keeping people on both sides of the aisle happy.
Kokoruda said it took him some time to get comfortable with the idea of moving an ethics commission forward. But she said it was mostly part of the vitriol of 2019 and how political candidates were able to capitalize on the ambiguity of what would end up turning out to be relatively harmless incidents that drove her to the bring back to the public eye.
“We have to name one. You have to put it to rest, ”she said.