ALBANY — County leaders have announced their appointments to the county legislature’s ethics commission, finally filling all five seats for the first time since ethics reform legislation was passed nearly five years ago.
The unmanned ethics commission has been a point of contention for reform-minded legislators agitating for change and transparency in county government. While a commission technically existed prior to ethics reform legislation that was passed in 2011, it was largely non-functioning according to critics. The 2011 legislation was intended to overhaul ethics in county government by providing structure, oversight, ethics training and transparency in Albany County—but, for the first five years, the commission has continued to be essentially non-existent and has received almost no funding at a paltry $250 per year.
Albany County’s current ethics law allows the legislature’s majority leader and county executive to make two appointments each to the ethics commission, while the legislature’s minority leader makes one. No more than two members of the commission can be from the same political party, and commissioners cannot be political party officials or county employees. The commission is empowered to review complaints related to the conduct of public officials with the goal of enhancing accountability and promoting integrity in government. It may also offer guidance on potential conflicts of interest, when public officials should recuse from voting, financial disclosure requirements and more.
County Executive Daniel McCoy named former state Supreme Court Justice Bernard J. Malone Jr. and Rabbi Scott I. Shpeen of Congregation Beth Emeth in Albany, but Shpeen is expected to be replaced by Rev. James Lefebvre, pastor emeritus at St. Mary’s on Lodge Street in Albany. Minority Leader Frank Mauriello chose Michael J. Rest of Guilderland, a former member of the town’s Ethics Board. Majority Leader Frank Commisso has named Shari Calnero, a recognized expert on ethics, and former state Supreme Court Justice Joseph Teresi.
The Albany County Legislature has supported all of the appointments. “I think all of them are good choices,” said Legislator Joe O’Brien (D-25). “They all have good standing in the community.” The commission will convene for the first time in the coming months to elect a chairperson.
Crediting his predecessor, former County Legislator Ryan Horstmyer (D-25), for getting the 2011 ethics legislation passed, O’Brien said, “Now that we’ve finally come this far and finally named some members to the board, we need to go one step further and properly staff and fund the office. I think we need to take a look at that as well.
“We need to show people that we are transparent and that we’re working towards government that functions properly,” he said, adding that he has been working with legislators Christopher Higgins (D-5), Alison McLean Lane (D-14) and David Mayo (D-26) to increase funding to the commission so that its members—who serve part-time and without pay—can have the clerical and research support necessary to adequately fulfill their roles. He noted that a budget amendment put forth at the end of last year by outgoing Legislator Tim Nichols (D-19) meant to increase funding for the ethics commission was defeated by a majority of legislators.
“The Minority Conference is now taking a very close look at all the boards, committees, and commissions appointed by the Albany County Legislature as we seek to clarify the duties of these bodies and make certain they are functioning properly and as intended,” said Minority Leader Frank Mauriello (R-27). “It is time the legislature has bipartisan oversight of all the boards and commissions it appoints to verify they are performing their duties.”