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Editorial: Amherst ethics policies benefit the public and community volunteers

The Amherst Town Board, in amending the town’s Ethics Code, has, at the least, provided some measure of accountability that perhaps was missing.

The action was undertaken to encourage those serving the volunteer boards and committees to do what they should have been doing all along: filing annual financial disclosure forms. The penalty for failing to do so would be automatic removal.

The other action by the board, barring the use of the town seal in political campaigning, also should be viewed positively. The issue was highlighted after the former town supervisor used the seal in a letter endorsing a candidate for Erie County Legislature.

Although not on the scale of preparation before sending in Internal Revenue Service documents each year, filling out annual financial disclosure forms could be viewed as daunting and instrusive. Such forms require disclosure of otherwise private financial information.

Yet in a democracy, the public has a right to know whether the people who sit in leadership positions have competing interests. That’s the value of financial disclosure forms. They can be uncomfortable and time-consuming for volunteers to have to complete, but they are necessary to the cause of honest government.

The Town Board determined that members of the “more significant advisory and policy setting boards and committees” must fill out a long-form statement providing details about the member’s finances. Those in remaining committees – lesser in magnitude – may fill out shorter forms requiring only basic information. It’s a plausible distinction that could help keep service on such boards attractive.

Here is where the change counts: Those who fail to fill out any forms, long or short, by the deadline will be treated as having forfeited board membership. That, too, is plausible.

As recently reported, there are about 300 individuals serving on boards ranging from the Amherst Industrial Development Agency to the Arts and Culture in Public Places Board. Each member is required to provide information on his or her property holdings, employment and any potential conflicts of interest.

There had previously been no procedure for getting rid of board members who failed to file disclosures, as Town Attorney Stanley J. Sliwa explained in The News, so he recommended the new language in the code that provides for automatic removal. That should provide incentive to those actually wanting to serve and perhaps help those who have trouble meeting deadlines – 45 of the 302 required to file missed the April 30 deadline last year, although the town attorney believes all eventually filed.

When it comes to strengthening ethics codes, as evidenced in Albany, getting cooperation, much less action, can be challenging.

Consequences help.

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