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March 18, 2010

DiNapoli: Improvements Needed in Municipal Ethics Laws

Proposes Legislation and Provides Model Code of Ethics to Guide Local Officials

State Comptroller Thomas P. DiNapoli today proposed legislation to strengthen municipal ethics laws after an audit identified widespread differences in how local governments around New York State oversee financial disclosure rules and enforce other ethics requirements. He also released proposed legislation and provided materials, including a model code of ethics, to help local officials understand ethics and conflicts of interest requirements.

"New Yorkers should have faith and confidence in their government," DiNapoli said. "My first priority since taking office was to re-instill ethics and accountability in the Comptrollerís Office. Iíve done that. But thereís still much to be done to restore the publicís trust. The Governor and the Legislature should redouble their efforts to improve the ethical climate in state government. In the meantime, Iíll continue to work with our local government partners to improve local ethics compliance.

"Our auditors found that some municipalities fail to comply with existing rules and arenít providing adequate training to staff so they recognize and address potential ethical problems. The overwhelming majority of municipal officials are honest and dedicated public servants, but they need to do more to reassure the public that they are acting in the taxpayersí best interest. We are giving them the tools to do just that."

Article 18 of the state General Municipal Law requires most local governments to adopt codes of ethics to set the standards of conduct for officers and employees and to distribute these codes to them. Counties, cities, towns or villages with populations of 50,000 or more must require some officials and employees to file annual financial disclosure forms. These disclosure forms should be reviewed by appropriate officials to help identify any potential conflicts of interest.

DiNapoliís office completed an audit of 31 municipalities and surveyed hundreds of top local government officials and found significant differences in local officialsí awareness of and compliance with ethics laws, including:

  • Twenty municipalities required certain officials and employees to file annual financial disclosure forms to identify potential conflicts of interest, 12 municipalities did not collect all the forms, nine did not make sure the forms were complete, and 14 did not review the forms to identify conflicts of interest;
  • Five of 20 boards of ethics had not convened for periods ranging from two to 11 years, and one county board has never convened;
  • All 31 municipalities had adopted codes of ethics, but only 26 of these codes addressed all of the ethics topics required by state General Municipal Law. 13 percent of the CEOs surveyed responded that their municipalities had not adopted codes of ethics at all or that they did not know whether a code existed; 61 percent of the local governmentsí codes did not address misuse of municipal resources, 45 percent did not address recusal, and 84 percent did not address the hiring and supervision of relatives; all issues that local officials and employees may face on a regular basis;.
  • Sixteen percent of surveyed CEOs reported either that their code of ethics had not been distributed to all officials and municipal employees, or they did not know whether it had been distributed. The audit found that 52 percent of the municipalities had not distributed their codes to all officers and employees, as required; and
  • More than 80 percent of the municipalities audited provided no ethics training to their officers and employees. Only 56 percent of local officials or employees in municipalities of 25,000 or more surveyed responded that they had ever attended training on ethics. This percentage dropped to 45 percent for respondents representing smaller municipalities.

The municipalities included in the audit were the Cities of Schenectady, Troy, White Plains and Rochester; the Counties of Columbia, Chenango, Tompkins, Chautauqua, Clinton, Montgomery, Nassau, Westchester, Monroe and St. Lawrence; the Towns of New Baltimore, New Scotland, Barker, Union, Cheektowaga, South Valley, Smithtown, Greenburgh, Greece, Mt. Morris and Clay; and the Villages of Perry, Broadalbin, Plandome Heights, Shoreham, Kiryas Joel and Waterville. Individual letters sent to each municipality can be found at Comptroller staff received survey responses from 149 CEOs and 217 top officials and employees from the 418 municipalities and school districts that were contacted.

DiNapoli is proposing legislation to strengthen the current ethics laws and address some of the concerns highlighted in the audit and survey including:

  • Strengthen codes of ethics by expanding the issues that must be addressed to include provisions nepotism and about the use of public resources for personal or private purposes;
  • Require local governments to annually review and update their codes of ethics;
  • Require prompt distribution of the code to all officers and employees and require them to acknowledge that they have received and read it;
  • Ensure that Boards of Ethics are more independent of their appointing boards;
  • Require training for board members on their roles and responsibilities;
  • Clarify that a municipalityís Board of Ethics has responsibility for interpreting and enforcing the code of ethics, and for collecting, reviewing and enforcing requirements related to annual financial disclosure statements;
  • Authorize Boards of Ethics to investigate complaints made by citizens and to conduct ethics training for employees; and
  • Authorize Boards of Ethics to impose civil penalties for violations of the conflicts of interest law and of the code of ethics.

Since taking office in 2007, DiNapoli has implemented a number of new ethics requirements in the Comptrollerís office and changed procedures for how the pension fund is managed and disclosures information. He has also been a strong proponent of campaign finance reform and pushed for public financing of campaigns.

Click here for a copy of the audit.

Click here for individual letters sent to municipalities included in the audit.

Click here for the model code of ethics.

Click here for the FAQs.


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