Some two months after Bob Litzenberg filed an ethics commission complaint both he and Commissioner Mary Jo Jablonski are still waiting to hear something about the matter from officials. At the April board meeting when he first solicited information about the status of the investigation, his query stunned officials and resulted in a confusing array of responses. After another month rolled by without communications from the municipality, he again inquired about the matter. Once more the exchange pointed to the uncertainty surrounding how the town is handling this complaint and how it generally manages such situations. (See the older posts for details.)
Since the way the municipality is handling this situation is confusing lots of people, Someone Noticed has worked to gain some insight on how the process works in Elkton. We have been advised by the town administrator that he is researching our basic questions so as soon as we get information we’ll post it here.
When a jurisdiction has an effective process, citizens are assured that complaints are taken seriously and that matters are carefully and completely investigated. These thorough investigations protect officials as well as the public, which is why it is important to have mechanisms that assure the public that the matter is carefully handled. Not bothering to let a citizen know something as basic as your complaint has been received or what they should anticipate as the inquiry moves forward does exactly the opposite.
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, but thus far in this process the town seems to want to force the matter to be aired publically, as details slowly emerge meeting after meeting.
During the second exchange Commissioner Jablonski commented that she still didn’t know what the complaint was about. As they discussed that oversight, she and the town attorney offered defenses. One presented by the attorney was that there were two fire company members on the town board and they vote on the budget that contains a revenue allocation for that organization. Bob dismissed that argument by asking if either them was paid to serve as a volunteer firefighter. They were not so that argument passed quickly by with a few more of that nature being suggested.
After these obvious elements are out of the way, there are more complex steps to think about. We suspect you want the commission to consider the complaint privately, and this includes interviewing all involved parties. But, perhaps, depending on the merits, the commission might dismiss it or move into another phase entirely, that of public hearings. However it is handled in this phase, they should issue findings in writing to the public and to the elected officials so that everyone’s interest is protected. Above all the goal is to assure the larger public of the integrity of the system. These are our thoughts and some of them are so obvious that surely they should be in place.
However you go about it, handle the matter. You don’t want to force the subject to keep coming up before the Board of Commissioners because no one is getting back with the corresponding citizen to do something as straight-forwarding as letting the individual know the letter was received.