CANTON — For several months, the town council and the village board have worked to revisit Canton’s ethics law, hoping to update it since its last revision, documented more than two decades ago.
The town’s complete code was last revised by the town board on June 8, 1999, according to the town’s code revisions document available on its website. Revisions adopted in the years since mostly relate to zoning laws, and no record of ethics code revisions is outlined in the document.
After the town, in January, and the village, in November, each passed an updated ethics code, a joint board of ethics was set to be established to oversee cases of municipal officials allegedly violating the code. The creation of the joint board has been discussed extensively this spring, and the board was initially set to make two volunteer appointments each from the village and town, and one appointment agreed upon by both municipalities.
Canton’s former ethics code described a three-member board of ethics, on which “a majority of such members shall be persons other than town employees” but that membership should also include at least one elected or appointed town employee.
The code now structures the ethics board as a five-member group of volunteers, “none of whom is an elected or appointed officer or employee of either municipality.”
With clarification from town attorney Eric Gustafson and village attorney Gerald Ducharme in April, the attorneys reported the town and village may need to include at least one municipal official — either elected or appointed — on its ethics board. Based on further research and clarification Mr. Gustafson and Mr. Ducharme said they agree that the joint ethics board as described in the updated law would be “properly constituted,” even without an elected or appointed member on board.
Mr. Ducharme said he found a case example, decided less than a year ago, in support of Canton’s current description of the ethics board requirements.
But now, Canton officials are considering taking a different approach altogether.
During a joint town and village meeting Monday evening, Mr. Gustafson and Mr. Ducharme requested some additional direction about what legal research they can provide to Canton officials. After some discussion about the municipalities soliciting the services of the St. Lawrence County Board of Ethics, village Mayor Michael E. Dalton asked the legal counselors to explore the details of using the county’s ethics board for Canton cases.
“It is one step removed from the village or the town, and I think there’s value in that,” Mr. Dalton said. “We’re not putting anybody on the spot in our village or our town to step up and do that.”
The municipalities are required to have their own ethics law, Mr. Ducharme said, though having an in-house ethics board is an elective decision, and Canton, like other local municipalities in the county, can use the county board of ethics.
Mr. Gustafson said he has spoken to county attorney Stephen D. Button about the issue, and reported that Mr. Button indicated the county’s ethics board would be willing to provide services to Canton.
“I’m personally uncomfortable recommending and or appointing my own potential jury,” Town Councilmember Bob Washo said during Monday’s meeting.
Mr. Washo added that he was reminded of the county ethics board option in the wake of recent conflict of interest issues discussed by the county board, specifically regarding employment conflict of interests for two county legislators. Nance A. Arquiett, D-Winthrop, and Henry Leader, R-Gouverneur, both resigned from the board of legislators last month after seeking ethics board opinions about their other roles in the county.
Village Trustee Klaus Proemm said he would be in favor of using the county ethics board, as he believes “that would be a reasonable way to handle it.”
Like Mr. Washo, Town Supervisor Mary Ann Ashley expressed some uneasiness with selecting members of a Canton ethics board.
“Since we passed the law and we were looking for members to volunteer for this, I did reach out to a few people and I have to say I felt very uncomfortable,” Ms. Ashley said. “I feel that if we do go the county route, there’s one level higher, well away, from us, and it would be more objective in my view. I’m not saying that the people, if we did go this route on our own, that they won’t be objective, but it was just a gut feeling.”
Town councilmembers and village trustees expressed they would like to learn more about the option in the coming weeks.
Village Trustee Beth Larrabee disclosed her husband is a current member of the county ethics board, and Mr. Dalton said that her husband would be able to recuse himself from any discussion of cases involving the village, should they arise.
“As far as I’m concerned, Gerry and Eric, move forward please,” Mr. Dalton said, asking Mr. Ducharme and Mr. Gustafson to look into a partnership with the county’s ethics board. “Iron out the details, what has to happen, and we’ll go from there.”