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Poloncarz should veto charter changes that would serve to weaken ethics board

Erie County Executive Mark C. Poloncarz doesn’t much like some aspects of the proposed changes to the Erie County Charter, but won’t say whether he will veto the revisions, only that he is struggling with the decision. But this shouldn’t be difficult. Poloncarz should veto this package of bills because it would all but emasculate the county Board of Ethics.

The charter revisions, hammered out by a committee this year, would implement several changes, including four-year terms for county legislators, a new process for drawing Legislature district boundaries and a requirement that more minorities and women be interviewed for top county positions.

But the package includes a poison pill in its treatment of the Erie County Board of Ethics. The revision would greatly expand membership of the board, to 18 members from the current five. With that change, Poloncarz says, the board would be rendered ineffective. He’s right. It would be difficult to gather a quorum for its meetings and, thus, all but impossible for it to render decisions on suspected ethics violations.

It’s possible that the Charter Revision Commission and county legislators overlooked the implications of this change, but only if they weren’t thinking about what they were doing. On any volunteer board, it can be difficult to find members committed enough to show up regularly; when the minimum needed is nine, the task becomes unlikely to the point of unachievable.

Perhaps the problem for some is that the board has been too active of late, recently citing two Republican officeholders – a legislator and the county comptroller – for violations. The board levied a $500 fine against Legislator Ted Morton of Cheektowaga for filing false information on his 2013 financial disclosure form. Morton is suing over the ruling.

The ethics board also ruled that Erie County Comptroller Stefan Mychajliw violated the code in 2014 when he asked county-connected business leaders to cover nearly $12,000 in tuition costs for a Harvard University business program. Mychajliw disputed the board’s findings, but the violation was obvious and egregious.

Elected officeholders may not appreciate the spotlight that the Board of Ethics shines on them, but voters have every reason to approve. It’s their interests and their tax dollars at play when politicians try to fudge the standards of ethical behavior. Legislators should think twice – and then twice again – before weakening the board’s influence.

As Poloncarz observed in a meeting this week with The News editorial board, legislators can still go ahead with some of the other proposed changes regarding, for example, greater outreach for minorities and women in top positions. Any revision that does not change the powers of an elected official can be passed without need for a referendum.

But other proposed changes, including longer terms for legislators, do require a referendum, which at this point could not happen before 2017. That proposal, and other changes to the Board of Ethics, deserve to be reconsidered, though more thoughtfully.

And it’s not as though ethics rules don’t need to be revised. Both Poloncarz and Acting District Attorney Michael J. Flaherty Jr. have pushed this year for changes, such as prohibiting county leaders from hiring the relatives of party officials; forbidding the legislative or executive appointment of a political party official to any county agency, board or government authority; and requiring greater financial disclosure.

That’s how to improve the actions of the Board of Ethics, not by bloating it to the point of immobility. And if legislators want longer terms, the price needs to be greater accountability. Poloncarz should veto this and lawmakers should not dare to override.

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