Skeptics might say it’s nothing but a campaign pitch, but even if it is, who cares? The proposal by Acting District Attorney Michael J. Flaherty to toughen Erie County ethics laws is not only important but impeccably timed.
With the Albany sewer filling the nostrils of voters around the state, it is likely that Erie County residents are open to the idea of ending the self-dealing that goes on in Erie County government. Flaherty has proposed legislation that would do that. All that is needed is for county legislators and Erie County Executive Mark C. Poloncarz to agree.
That, of course, is the trick. The ethics reforms that Flaherty wants the county to adopt would put the brakes on the gravy train that allows county officials to hire friends and family, to reward political bosses with jobs and more.
For honest lawmakers – that is, those for whom the point of the job is public service – these changes will be liberating. For others, they will be constraining. Either way, voters win.
Flaherty’s proposals include:
• Prohibiting county leaders from hiring the relatives of political party officials.
• Forbidding the legislative or executive appointment of a political party official to any county agency, board or government authority.
• Requiring the immediate firing of any county official convicted of a crime.
• Limiting contributions from an entity or individual to $5,000 to candidates for a countywide office, and $500 for a County Legislature seat, and closing loopholes for limited liability corporations that can bypass contribution limits virtually at will.
• Increasing penalties for financial disclosure form violations by candidates.
• Prohibiting Board of Elections employees from circulating petitions for candidates to elected office.
How could a legislator of honest intent argue against these standards? That will make it especially interesting to see who does, or who resists not just a serious discussion, but adoption of these concepts.
What could be the objection? That it’s to the benefit of county taxpayers when the friends and family of elected officials are hired for county jobs? That party officials should be first in line for appointment to government entities?
The need for change is glaring, especially given that while the county Board of Ethics has referred several matters to the District Attorney’s Office over the years, none has led to criminal charges. The reason is because the law is so elastic it’s all but impossible to break.
An especially fascinating backdrop to Flaherty’s proposals is that he is seeking the endorsement of the Erie County Democratic Party in his bid to win the DA’s Office outright. He was appointed to the position after former District Attorney Frank A. Sedita III won election to State Supreme Court. It speaks well of Flaherty that he is pushing these important reforms even though they could radically change the power structure that has long benefited party bosses in Erie County.
These proposals deserve strong bipartisan support in the Erie County Legislature. Members must know that voters have been made painfully aware of the corruption that is endemic to New York State government. It is in their interest, and that of county residents, to approve these ethics proposals. It would be good to be able to say that, when it comes to ethics, Erie County is ahead of the state.