Troy’s ethics commission, a seven-person public body intended to promote and enforce the city’s ethics code, now has only one member. Without a quorum, it can’t meet, and the lone commissioner wants to call it quits. “I’m looking for somebody to take my place,” Harriet Warnock-Graham, who has served since 2015, recently told The Alt over the phone. “I really can’t give it the attention it deserves.”
Apparently no one else can, either. The commission has not met since December. Annual financial disclosure statements detailing business ties and property holdings—required of elected officials, their appointees, appointees of those appointees, and certain employees—were due May 15th. Several city councilmembers confirmed with The Alt that they had submitted their disclosure statements this year, but it was unclear how the commission’s real or perceived inactivity may have affected overall compliance.
John Cubit, who served as commissioner from 2014 to the end of his three-year term in December, told The Alt that government-wide disclosure compliance increased from 73 to 98 percent during his tenure.
“In my opinion, we did offer a service,” said Cubit. “[The commission] lays out the groundwork for good behavior.” Prior to his involvement, the commission had been essentially inactive for two decades, the former commissioner said.
Beyond keeping tabs on disclosure forms, the commission may offer advisory opinions, conduct investigations, and even refer matters to the state attorney general, though Cubit said the half-dozen or so cases it opened during his term never went that far.
In essence, the commission exists as a safeguard against public servants using their office for personal financial gain. Three commissioners are appointed by the mayor, two by the city council majority, and two by the council minority. All of Mayor Patrick Madden’s slots are vacant; his spokesman did not return multiple requests for comment.
Minutes from last year indicate the commission notified the mayor and Democratic city council minority leader Lynn Kopka multiple times of respective vacancies. Kopka did not return a request for comment. The Republican majority also currently has one vacancy.
Multiple city council members told The Alt that they have sought to fill the spots, but potential appointees inevitably back out. Since November, Republican city councilman Dean Bodnar wrote in an email, “I’ve urged the administration to appoint new members, and I’ve similarly urged the council to do so.” Bodnar also solicited two potential nominees, though both later passed on the chance.
“I’m particularly eager to have the EC functioning again because I’ve wanted at least one issue considered by that body, but with the EC in limbo, nothing happened,” Bodnar added. “Right now, there’s been no discussions in many weeks regarding reviving the EC.”
One expert on state and local government in New York says it’s not uncommon for ethics commissions to meet this kind of fate.
“Regrettably, they often fall into disuse and become less than fully staffed,” Gerald Benjamin, a political science professor at SUNY New Paltz, told The Alt in an email. “Laws rarely allow them to be proactive. Attention turns to them in crisis or when a problem arises. Then after it is addressed, disuse and decline recurs.”
Jimmy Quinn, who served as the commission’s pro bono counsel for about two years, told The Alt that its members’ jobs were complicated by complaints that seemed politically motivated.
“They want[ed] to help the city,” Quinn said of the volunteers serving on the commission. “They didn’t want to get dragged into two council people fighting with each other.”
In 2014, at the outset of its revival, the commission, apparently prompted by claims on Facebook, briefly sought to determine if then-council president Rodney Wiltshire failed to disclose a financial interest in Kokopellis, the site of a massive bar fight involving police and patrons. The ethics investigation, which Wiltshire called a “witch hunt,” quickly found he had no such stake.
But while the risk that the ethics commission might serve as a platform for waging partisan proxy wars cannot be dismissed outright, this hardly makes a case for letting it die. (Nor does the ethics code’s rather muddled wording, another pitfall.) It would be difficult to quantify the amount of official misconduct the commission’s mere existence may have preempted.
“Is there a need for it? Yes, there is,” city councilman Mark McGrath told The Alt. “[It’s] always better to have an outside group to be able to say, ‘Wait a minute—that’s not right.’”