The Examiner

North Castle Revises Ethics Code, Requires Annual Disclosure

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The North Castle Town Board adopted a revision of the town’s ethics code that requires elected officials and members of land use boards to regularly disclose real estate and business holdings along with those of certain relatives.

After several months of debate and fine-tuning, all town elected officials and members of the Planning Board, Zoning Board of Appeals, Architectural Review Board and the Assessment Review Board will be required every year to complete a disclosure form with the information and watch a brief ethics education video.

The disclosure requirement extends to spouses, parents, siblings, a sibling’s spouse, children, aunts and uncles, nieces and nephews, a first cousin or household member of a municipal officer or employee to the best of a person’s knowledge. Stepparents and stepchildren are also included.

Previously, a board member would have to disclose their holdings at the start of their service, but as time progressed, there would be no obligation to disclose any changes. It would, therefore, be up to the board member to acknowledge potential conflicts on their own should a matter arise before the board they are sitting on. There had also been no ethics education in town.

Dating back to last spring, Board of Ethics Chair Brett Summers had periodically appeared before the Town Board for extensive discussions that occasionally became heated. Summers said the point of the disclosure form and training video was to increase transparency and give town residents the greatest possible confidence in their town government and officials.

He said that he believed there was a lack of understanding of when people need to disclose possible conflicts, and once they do, how they should recuse, Summers said.

“This is intended to ensure that confidence because right now, without any disclosure obligation, without any education, all of these things go to increasing community confidence,” he said.

In addition to real estate holdings other than the person’s primary residence, a board member would also have to divulge whether they or one of their eligible relatives have a direct or indirect interest in either a publicly traded or non-public company that has business before the town.
There was some disagreement among the Town Board on how detailed the disclosure form should be and whether it might discourage potential volunteers from serving on those boards. Councilman Saleem Hussain said that by having to disclose information once a year it will likely be in a board member’s consciousness, perhaps leading to greater compliance.

Supervisor Michael Schiliro questioned whether it was necessary to force a board member to disclose information when a conflict related to the ownership of real estate or a business may never arise. He said the town has had a strong ethics code on the books for years.
Furthermore, since the forms are a public record, they would be subject to Freedom of Information Law (FOIL) requests.
Schiliro said he’s found that most board members have been conscientious about recusing themselves.

“Why would we have to disclose something that’s not before us?” Schiliro asked.
Councilman Matt Milim said it’s a matter of the town doing a better job of assuring the public that the greatest amount of transparency is being promoted.

“I think it instills more confidence in the system,” he said.

A portion of a person’s information could be redacted if it can be considered an unwarranted invasion of privacy.
During the Oct. 26 public hearing on the issue, a few residents expressed their opinions. Linda Fernberg said she believed that portions of the disclosure form were “too invasive.”

But another resident Jen Clark, said she wouldn’t know why someone would be against the more robust and more frequent disclosure.
“I think anyone who would be opposed to something like this is guilty of something or has something to hide,” Clark said. “This seems like total common sense to me.”

While the Town Board easily approved the measure, there was disagreement on whether the hearing should have remained open until this week’s meeting. However, a board majority of Milim, Hussain and Councilman Jose Berra concluded that few residents had commented throughout the roughly six months that the issue was periodically discussed by the board.

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