Do you recall the old Abbott and Costello routine “Who’s on First?” For about three months as we watched Elkton officials stumble through the process of handling a citizen’s ethics complaint, that old comedy skit kept coming to mind. It was almost as if the routine made famous by the old time comedians had become part of the town meeting.
We got a strong sense of how it was going to unfold after Bob Litzenberg appeared before the town board on April 15 to ask about the status of a determination he’d requested in a March letter. His brief one sentence query stunned the entire town board as they all looked on in puzzlement. None of them, including the Mayor or Commissioner Jablosnki (the subject of the complaint) appeared to know anything about the matter. With confusion reigning, bob brought clarity back to the situation by asking in his own surprised way, “You mean you people don’t know about the complaint I filed?” Someone said no, someone said yes, while other puzzled someones looked on. About this time, the town administrator and attorney started speaking up. Yes we know about the complaint and it’s been handed over to the Ethics Commission, was the way it generally went until Bob tossed another question into the tangle. “Well have they met?” With the professional staff now running with the ball, someone said no, while someone said yes. Someone else decided, they’d better clarify those exchanges. They met but they didn’t have a quorum, was a remark from the staff side of the room. As for Someone Noticed, we and the public watched all the other official someones toss the questions back and forth or look on with amazement. All we could think of as this went around and around is “Who’s on first?”
When the May meeting rolled around, they had to know Bob would once again ask where the matter stood since officials hadn’t been in touch with him. His follow-up query caused another series of interesting exchanges that demonstrated the confusion around how the town was handling the complaints. Commissioner Jablonski added to the discussion by saying that she too hadn’t been contacted and she didn’t know what the complaint was about. Since the puzzled elected official was still uninformed, Bob clarified the nature of the complaint for her. With those preliminaries out of the way, an exchange with the town attorney got underway. He tried to make the point that the board gives the fire company money so by that reasoning commissioners who are also with the fire company wouldn’t be able to vote on the budget. Bob quickly dismissed that assertion when he asked if any of the volunteer fire company members sitting as town officials were paid by Singerly. “No” they all said. The conversation continued along those lines with supporting arguments being made by officials as Bob dismissed them. This exchange was going nowhere so to bring some clarity back to the stalled situation Bob asked if the commission had met. Well they’ tried to meet but they weren’table to get a quorum was the answer. “Well that’s what you said last month,” he remarked. He added that one member of the Ethics Commission told him that he hadn’t been able to get in contact with other members. “Who’s on first” we wondered.
The next time they met, with a deadline fast approaching for acceptance of a municipal budget, the Mayor and Commissioners were occupied with discussing revenue and expenditures. As they worked their way through the spreadsheets crammed with numbers, the discussion suddenly changed directions when the elected and appointed official starting examining the central legal arguments involved in the citizen’s ethics complaint. The town attorney informed the board that he’d researched the conflict of interest matter and it was his opinion that Commissioner Jablonski could vote on the budget. Commissioner Jablonski thanked him for the opinion. The airing of the subject in public (the Whig was also present) and the announcement of the legal opinion surprised us since we’d been told by the administration that these matters are handed off to the Ethics Commission. “Who’s on first!”
When the June meeting rolled around Commissioner Jablonski casually remarked that the three-member Ethics Commission had met. When she and the town attorney then started exchanging comments, the attorney added that a letter was sent out to the involved parties. That caused Commissioner Jablosnki asked to ask if she too was going to get a letter informing her of the commissons ruling. She was, he said.
To handle these things in a professional manner in the future, we think the town should develop some procedural rules, starting with really basic mechanisms. When a complaint is received, for example, we’d let the corresponding party know that we’ve at least received the communications and that the matter has been handed over to the Ethics Commission. To that, we’d notify the official involved in the complaint so he or she can present a defense. It is not right for an official to have to hear about such an important matter in public as happened here. To have the details slowly emerge over several months in public and to force a public airing of the matter is not the way you want to approach an ethics commission complaint.
Of course the town is a little backed up on the standardization of its best practices. It was over a year ago that the Mayor and Commissioners voted to implement a purchasing policy for the town, after an embarrassing situation emerged over computer purchases. At a recent meeting, Commissioner Storke asked where the implementation of that improvement opportunity stood. Nothing new has been done, it was reported.