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Ethics code in City of Lockport taking aim at nepotism

LOCKPORT – Mayor Anne E. McCaffrey said last week that the new city code of ethics will go a long way toward making nepotism illegal in city government.

The code also gives the Board of Ethics real investigative power, Corporation Counsel John J. Ottaviano said.

If the new rules had been in force when the city decided to look into Youth and Recreation Director Melissa I. Junke’s use of former Mayor Michael W. Tucker’s city credit card to pay expenses for a golf tournament, Ottaviano said, the city wouldn’t have had to hire an outside attorney to investigate it.

McCaffrey said she consulted with the New York Conference of Mayors after she took office Feb. 21 to obtain suggestions on how to upgrade the code of ethics.

“They sent me (the codes of) several municipalities that they liked, but the one they liked best was Cohoes,” McCaffrey said. Lockport’s code is largely adapted from that city’s policy.

While Lockport’s former code of ethics fit on one page, albeit in a small font size, the new one occupied eight full pages in last week’s Common Council agenda.

The former code was silent on the subject of nepotism, but the new code bars any officer or employee, either individually or as a member of a board, from participating in any decision to hire, discipline, promote or fire any relative for any position. Nor may any city employee or officer act as a relative’s on-the-job supervisor.

McCaffrey said that means, among other things, that a mayor couldn’t appoint a family member to a city job, as Tucker did in 2006 when he gave his son a full-time Highways and Parks Department laborer position.

But McCaffrey said last year’s hiring of Fire Chief Thomas J. Passuite’s son for the Water Department would have been acceptable, because the fire chief doesn’t hire or supervise anyone in the Water Department.

“I don’t think it’s in the city’s best interest if nepotism has trumped other hiring decisions,” McCaffrey said.

The new code is far more detailed on gifts to officials than the previous one.

The value of gifts from any single giver are limited to $75 a year if the gifts could be construed as an attempt to influence or reward the recipient.

There is a presumption of a violation if the donor has an issue pending before the city or he received municipal action on something within the last year.

“The whole point of this is, we should not be in public office for personal gain,” McCaffrey said.

The old Board of Ethics, comprising City Treasurer Michael E. White, Rev. Otto G. Struckmann and attorney Henry W. Schmidt Jr., hasn’t met in years and will be replaced, the mayor said.

The code says the new three-member board must not include anyone now on the city payroll. Ottaviano said he expects that one of the appointees will be an attorney.

The board will have subpoena power to compel testimony and production of evidence at its hearings, but the hearings will be secret.

Only findings of ethical violations will be publicly disclosed.

The board will be able to recommend disciplinary actions in line with state law and union contracts, up to and including firing, but it doesn’t have the power to impose penalties itself.

The board also may give secret advisory opinions to city employees or officials about whether their plans violate the code of ethics.