CANTON — A half-hour debate over a county board of ethics opinion that led to two legislators resigning last week became contentious and accusatory during Monday night’s St. Lawrence County Board of Legislators meeting.
Nance A. Arquiett, D-Winthrop, and Henry Leader, R-Gouverneur, each tendered their resignations, effective May 31, due to reported conflicts of interest.
The lawmakers resigned from the positions on the county legislature following the advice of the county ethics board because of the nature of their jobs. Mrs. Arquiett is a state Department of Environmental Conservation employee, and Mr. Leader is an attorney who represents about a dozen villages and towns in the county.
But legislator Anthony Arquiett, D-Helena, raised an eyebrow over the opinion, citing the state Joint Commission on Public Ethics — which he referred to as a “higher authority” than the county’s board of ethics — having cleared legislators prior to taking their seats on the board.
Moreover, he said he believed all lawmakers on the board have appropriately recused themselves from voting on any resolution that posed a conflict with their outside employment.
“Where my concerns lie, what I think we are trying to do, I think everybody, voters, this body, we’re trying to find the best people to represent our districts in this county and I’m just struggling to find out how our county board of ethics could differ in their opinion from the higher authorities,” he said.
County Attorney Stephen D. Button explained that the state ethics committee’s jurisdiction only extends to reviewing state law.
“They review their own individual ethics rules, they identify general municipal law, they go over conflict provisions associated with general municipal law, then they render a decision solely based on the law that they have jurisdiction over to review,” Mr. Button said. “The county board does not review the action based on the state laws that govern ethics, they only review associated to our county law. The state board similarly only reviews the state law applicability and does not review according to the county law.”
Mr. Arquiett said that the explanation begs for the lawmakers to look at the local law that speaks to the scope in which the county’s board of ethics advises and consider amending it to avoid an opposite opinion from that of another ethics board that would have cleared a lawmaker to take their elected position.
“We have a problem here, in my opinion, and I really think we need to take a look as we move forward to make sure that good people are not eliminated from running for these positions, because of ethical ramifications,” Mr. Arquiett said.
Vice Chairman David W. Forsythe, R-Lisbon, chided Mr. Arquiett and said he “found it interesting” and “almost hilarious” that an ethics board that had been pushed for by Democratic congressional candidate Tedra Cobb when she was on the legislature was now being questioned following what he said he believed was the ethics board’s first ruling in 12 years.
“There was very much time put into this,” Mr. Forsythe said. “Circumstances change as time goes on, employments change as time goes on. I wasn’t a firm believer at the original board of ethics, but it’s worked up ’til now, but now because it doesn’t fit a perspective, we want to discuss changing it. I just can’t believe we are even discussing it.”
The comment started a back and forth between the two lawmakers, with Mr. Arquiett saying he was appalled by Mr. Forsythe for his comments, adding that Mr. Forsythe, co-owner of Wilder Forsythe Insurance, which, with its partnering agencies, are primarily property and casualty companies providing auto, home, recreational vehicles, farms, and commercial insurance products, lobbied the legislature to open up a DMV office “that would have a direct effect on his own business.”
“And then he is appalled that we brought this up for conversation with the intent not to be argumentative, with the intent to move forward and he is appalled by this?” Mr. Arquiett said. “I’m appalled by him!”
During County Administrator Ruth A. Doyle’s report to law makers, Mr. Forsythe said the issues with DMV being closed was a “sticking point” with him.
“I just feel we’re taking baby steps with DMV. Car sales are starting to pick up and my office was very busy today with car sales, so I think we have to be ready,” he said. “There’s a lot of 16 year olds that have become permit eligible since March 18. They are itching to get their wheels under their feet. I don’t blame them.”
He said his office has worked out of a “crank-out window,” servicing his customers by any means possible.
“I think if we are going to open satellite offices, somehow we have to get public access, whether we punch out a window an put something in that they can transfer between, or I know the Ogdensburg office, particularly, two people could work in that office,” Mr. Forsythe said. “I’m encouraging to take bigger steps with DMV. I think our constituents really are looking for that.”
But he told Mr. Arquiett the DMV offices have no appliance.
“I serve the private sector, Tony, so I deal with clients every day walking in off the streets and it is their convenience that I hear, same as many of us are from taxpayers and constituents,” he said. “My clients are very disturbed, so if the DMV shut down tomorrow, my business would not change.”
Legislator John H. Burke, R-Norfolk, said the ethics board option leading to the resignations of Mrs. Arquiett and Mr. Leader was a “slippery slope,” and though the opinions are confidential, said if the interpretation of the opinion was “that tightly constructed,” who would be next to go? He called for transparency and explanation.
“Probably only those of us that are retired and don’t have any vested interest could be the only safe ones,” he said. “And I think we have two conflicting interests here, certainly we want to convince the public that our ethics are beyond question, but there is also another big component, there are people that voted to put these individuals in office because they have trust in them.”
Several lawmakers continued to address the issue until Chairman Joseph R. Lightfoot, R-Ogdensburg, cut it off.
“I would just like to say that nobody, in this room or in this venue . . . were a part of the deliberations that the ethics board had, so you don’t know, I don’t know,” he said. “We don’t know what they based their determination on, If you want to know, go to those people and ask them what that decision says.”