Many Geneva residents are unaware that since 2009, the City has enlisted a Board of Ethical Review “to investigate and provide recommendations to City Council on the pursuit of remedies for specific allegations of violations of the Code of Ethics.” Residents who believe that an ethical violation has been committed can report it by following the instructions on the City of Geneva’s website.
On December 3, 2016, I filed a two-part complaint via email with the Board of Ethical Review regarding what I believed were two violations of the City of Geneva’s Code of Ethics. The Board promptly responded to my email, and we scheduled a meeting for December 12th, 2016.
My first complaint centered around City Council’s use of Executive Session to discuss the sale of the lakefront parcel. At our December 12th meeting, the Board members informed me that this particular complaint was related to Open Meetings Law, and that I should instead contact the New York State Committee on Open Government for guidance. I then contacted the COOG, and wrote about their response in a December 16th article.
My second complaint was as follows:
- On June 1st, the City Council Meeting agenda referred to the aforementioned parcel as “Seneca County Tax Parcel 23-3-17.2.”
- On July 13th, the City Council Meeting agenda referred to the aforementioned parcel as “CITY PROPERTY.”
- On November 2nd, the City Council Meeting agenda referred to the aforementioned parcel as “Town of Waterloo Tract.”
- The City Council Agenda is a publicly available document that is designed to inform residents on any potential or current City Council actions or decisions. This parcel was referred to by three different names on three different agendas, and none of the names were ever used more than once. This is a violation of the City Code of Ethics Tenet 7.
Six days after our meeting, on December 18th, the Ethics Board informed me via email:
“…we will evaluate what happened during the public meetings and will consider whether the council’s actions surrounding the sale of the Waterloo tract violated tenet 7 or other tenets in the Code of Ethics…We will keep you updated on the status of our review.”
Readers might notice the reference to “public meetings” in the above statement. This is because, in addition to my complaint, another complaint had been filed with the Board of Ethics against a current City Councilor, and this other complaint became the primary subject of discussion during our December 12th meeting.
Focus On Camera
After discussing my complaints, the Board informed me that an ethics complaint had been filed against Ward 4 City Councilor Ken Camera relating to a meeting at the Geneva Public Library about the lakefront sale during which Camera discussed the controversy with concerned citizens. The Board members had read the November 10th Geneva Believer report on the meeting (Councilor Camera Changes Vote, Attorney Advises “Reset”: Lakefront Sale Update #3) and were interested in asking more questions about exactly how the meeting was organized and what transpired at the library. I let the Board know that I had taken careful and detailed notes during the meeting and wrote the article the same night, and that I stood by the content of the article as an accurate representation of the event. Still, I agreed to answer additional questions in the interest of transparency.
- They asked me who organized the library meeting, and I replied that after receiving an influx of emails from constituents about the land sale, Councilor Camera had responded by offering to meet with everyone to discuss the issue.
- They asked me if Councilor Camera had specifically criticized any individual Councilors or the City Manager, and I replied that he absolutely had not.
- They asked me if I had reached out to any other City Councilors about the lakefront sale and I said that Councilor Camera was the only one. When they asked why, I said that I believe that Councilor Camera has always shown that he is receptive to the needs of his constituents, has a deep concern regarding the City’s green spaces and environmental issues, has shown that he is willing to deeply examine all sides of City issues, and is consistent and earnest in his efforts to always do the right thing.
- They asked me a handful of other questions which I was hesitant to answer because I didn’t want to unintentionally contradict anything that had been written on Geneva Believer, so I referred them back to the article for clarification.
Finally, the Board asked me if there were any other details that I hadn’t mentioned and felt were important, and I offered these comments:
- It was solely my decision to publish both the Geneva Believer article publicizing the library meeting and the Geneva Believer Facebook event inviting residents to the library meeting. Councilor Camera did not request that I publicize the meeting, although I did inform him via email that I would be doing so, and he responded “Okay.”
- Although my article stated that Councilor Camera “was the only City Councilor in attendance,” this was inaccurate. Councilor Camera was the only City Councilor who was willing to address the issue at the meeting. Ward 1 City Councilor Angelina Marino was also in attendance, but did not speak publicly during the meeting, and spent the meeting standing near the back of the room behind the majority of the attendees. I turned to look at Councilor Marino a few times and saw that she was either observing or texting on her phone.
- When the Board told me that Councilor Camera may have violated the Code of Ethics by publicly criticizing decisions that had been made by City Council (he stated that the land sale had been a “badly done process,” among other comments), I told them that Councilor Camera was the only City Councilor who listened to his constituents and did his job by meeting with them to hear their concerns. It was unbelievable to me that if a Councilor publicly expressed regret or disagreement with a decision made by Council, that somehow this would be interpreted as a ‘violation.’
The City’s Code of Ethics was not meant to be interpreted in a way that creates less transparency in government and discourages our elected officials from engaging openly and honestly with the public.
By the time my meeting with the Board had ended, we had spent far more time discussing the library meeting than my own ethics complaints. However, I found the members of the Board of Ethics to be thoughtful, professional, helpful, informed and keenly aware of the importance of their role in city government.
I left the meeting assuming that I would receive an update on the review of my complaint within a couple of weeks, and if substantiated, public release of the results within a month or two.
I was mistaken.
Lawyer Up And Make ‘Em Wait
After waiting a full six weeks from the time of my meeting with the Board of Ethical Review, I emailed the board requesting a status update. Eight days later, on February 1st 2017, I received a reply stating, in part:
“At this point, the committee has completed its work on the matter. Our findings have been advanced to City Council for their review. You may feel free to contact Matt Horn (firstname.lastname@example.org) directly for further details if you wish. To do so, you should reference “December 3, 2016 ethics complaint from Geneva resident against City Council and City Manager”.”
Although I was willing to contact the City Manager for an update, I replied to the Board and expressed concern about being asked to contact the City Manager for an update on a complaint I had filed against (in part) the City Manager. The Board member replied almost immediately with an apology, and stated:
“The board’s findings are currently under legal review before release, and I am not able to send a copy of the report to you directly at this time. You may, however, contact the City’s attorney at email@example.com for a status update if you wish. I have been assured that our findings will be made public soon.”
§ 26-6 Complaint procedures.
C. In cases where complaints are made against a sitting Councilor or any Council appointee, the Council, by open vote, may call a meeting of the Board of Ethical Review. Once called, the complaint will be carried by the Council liaison to the Board. The Board will conduct any investigation necessary to determine a basis in fact for the complaint. Once the investigation is complete, the Board will make a report to the Council. All substantiated complaints shall be reported at the first regular City Council meeting following substantiation. Following the report, a majority of Council may execute disciplinary action as they feel is necessary and appropriate; and that is permitted by applicable state, federal, and local laws, rules, and regulations.
[Amended 8-5-2015 by Ord. No. 9-2015]
So, it would appear that because the Board of Ethics had forwarded their report on my complaint to City Council, there had been some indication of an ethics violation. If my claim hadn’t been ‘substantiated,’ reporting it at the next City Council meeting wouldn’t be necessary.
Still, the language of the City Code is vague enough to prevent any firm conclusions that ethics violations related to my complaint were found by the Board.
After waiting a couple of weeks and assuming that the findings would be reported at the March 3rd City Council meeting, I sent an email to the city attorney requesting an update and received this response from attorney Emil Bove:
The City’s Board of Ethical Review has submitted its report on the complaint referred to in your email.
Copies of the Report have been delivered to the members of the City Council.
Public dissemination of the Report has been stayed on advice of the City Attorney due to concerns relating to possible litigation.
Of course, it’s unknown what “possible litigation” could be on the horizon that would allow for this information to be withheld.
Still, if the Board had decided that there were no ethics violations committed, there would be no reason to withhold their findings.
Regardless, I responded to Mr. Bove with the following message:
Thank you for your email.
To review, there were two parts to my original complaint. The first complaint relating to Open Meetings Law was not substantiated by the Board of Ethical review, who notified me that such complaints are the purview of the State Committee on Open Government.
The second complaint relating to “Tenet 7 – Communication” of the City of Geneva Code of Ethics has apparently been substantiated.
Please let me know if I can expect the complaint to be discussed at the March 1st City Council meeting in accordance with chapter § 26-6, section C of the City Code which states that “All substantiated complaints shall be reported at the first regular City Council meeting following substantiation.”
Emil responded promptly:
Public dissemination of the Report has been temporarily stayed on advice of the City Attorney due to concerns relating to possible litigation.
As a result, the Complaint will not be discussed at the March 1, 2017 Council meeting.
We will advise you, the ethics Board, and the Council whether the Complaint will be discussed at the April meeting.
First, it’s considered a bit of a faux pas, even a mild insult, to misspell someone’s name, especially after the name has been spelled correctly in two previous messages. However, I’m sure Mr. Bevo is quite busy and it was merely an innocent typo.
Second, while I appreciate the underlined bold text emphasizing the word “temporarily,” I already understood the legal definition of “stayed” and adding “temporarily” in front of it is redundant. The typographical emphasis is just overkill.
Third, the job of the city attorney is not to “advise…the Council whether the complaint will be discussed at the April meeting.” The job of the city attorney is to “advise…the Council whether the complaint should be discussed at the April meeting.”
It’s the Council’s job to ultimately decide whether to take the advice of the city attorney. I hope Council remembers this fact, and will also remind Mr. Bove of his role.
A City of Ethics?
I was told by one of the Board members that they could not recall another time when a citizen had filed a complaint with the Ethics Committee. Whether or not I was the first to do so is irrelevant. What is important is that the experience has provided some valuable insight into the process, and has highlighted some important questions for the residents of Geneva to consider.
There are questions about how the Code of Ethics is being interpreted and applied, and whether it might be used to discourage transparency and public engagement by elected officials. The results (if any) of the ethics complaints described in this article will be an important indicator in how we fulfill the stated promise from the ‘Values’ section of Geneva’s official website that we are a “City of Ethics:”
A City of Ethics…
In 2016, the Geneva City Council determined that the City would place ethical conduct of public business at the forefront of its agenda. We take great pride in actively promoting ethical conduct in our elected, appointed, and hired officials, and in the execution of City policies and programs.
It’s unknown whether the complaint against Camera, or my complaint against City Council and the City Manager, will be substantiated. Regardless of the outcome, it’s critical for citizens to know that we have a Code of Ethics, we have a Board of Ethical Review to uphold the code, and we are all responsible for making it serve the purpose for which it was intended.
If you suspect a violation of the Code of Ethics by a City Councilor or Council appointee, you may contact a City Councilor, the City Clerk, or the City Attorney of the violation, but in this writer’s opinion, contacting the Board of Ethical Review is your best course of action.
If you suspect an ethical violation by a city employee, you may report it to the City Manager or the city’s Director of Human Resources.