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Editorial: On county ethics policy, clarity counts

Erie County elected leaders should be given credit for working on a new ethics law. But they’re building in so much wiggle room that it could easily fail to do the job.

The back and forth banter at a recent legislative meeting on the proposed ethics law, along with its many exceptions, should be enough to encourage some rewrites. Close the loopholes and make the language clear. Leave no room for misinterpretation.

Getting agreement on what is, and is not an appropriate benchmark on accepting gifts is just one example. The proposed county law forbids anything above “nominal” or token value. The word “nominal” could be left up to interpretation. Making it far murkier is that the county code would come up with a page and one-half of single-spaced gift “exceptions.” It includes an exception for complementary admission to a “widely attended event” and gifts from persons with “a personal relationship with a county official.” That’s wiggle room big enough for an elephant.

What about that 200-level Sabres or Bills ticket?

Chris G. Trapp, vice chairman of the Erie County Ethics Board, said that because he is a lawyer he looks at words very carefully, and considers the wording to be “broadly written.” It could include Bills and Sabres games. He makes a good point. What about that squishy wording?

Erie County Executive Mark C. Poloncarz takes exception. He thinks taking something like Sabres or Bills tickets is obviously off limits. But could it be argued? Not everyone’s generosity comes from the heart. The hope that the gift-giver gets something back may be in play. To be fair, that rule of thumb should not apply to a close personal friend or relative.

Fortunately, ethics board members raised a number of concerns. In response, lawmakers offered valuable loophole-closing amendments. They should also address the fact that the while the county’s language appears similar to the ethics laws that govern state and federal officials, it differs from those that govern municipalities such as Buffalo, Amherst and New York City.

Certainly, this effort can be complicated, but it will be less so if lawmakers start from this place: How best can we instill and protect the public’s confidence in government? With that approach, the answers to other questions should become more obvious.

The county executive has promised the new law will be “clearer, stronger, more transparent and less reliant on judgment calls by the Board of Ethics,” while cleaning up and consolidating the patchwork of other county ethics laws from the past. It’s a lot, and starts by making sure there is no room for abuse.

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