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Code of Ethics

Port Jefferson resident Arthur Epps weighs in on the proposed ethics code at the Jan. 31, trustees board meeting. Photo courtesy Port Jefferson website

By Lynn Hallarman

Village of Port Jefferson officials and residents engaged in an impassioned debate over the proposed ethics code in a contentious Board of Trustees meeting at Village Hall Jan. 31. 

This meeting marked the end of the public comment period for the proposed ethics code. A vote was then held by the trustees, passing unanimously a replacement of Chapter 41 of the Code of Ethics. 

Ethics code

Since the fall, the village trustees have been working toward a sweeping revision of Chapter 41, which establishes standards of ethical conduct for officers and employees of the village. The current Code of Ethics was adopted in the 1970s with few revisions since. 

The purpose of the initiative is twofold: Firstly, to update the code and align the village with current standard practices employed by municipalities across the state that are in accordance with Article 18 of the New York State General Municipal Law. Secondly, to establish a board of ethics for the first time in the village’s history. 

Issues covered by the proposed Code of Ethics include conflict of interest, gifts and tips, use of village resources, annual financial disclosure of certain village officers and employees, disclosure of confidential information and nepotism. 

The draft of the proposed code presented to the public at the meeting included the establishment of village board of ethics. According to this draft, the ethics board would consist of five voluntary members drawn from the community who offer their names and credentials. The mayor then nominates candidates from the pool of submissions. The Board of Trustees considers the nominations for approval. 

The duties of the ethics board include hearing complaints and concerns and issuing an opinion. The board is responsible for educating and training village officials and employees about the ethics code.

The village hired attorney Steven Leventhal, a recognized New York State legal ethics expert, to guide the village through drafting the village’s proposed ethics code and forming an ethics board.

Mayor Lauren Sheprow reminded the public that they can still submit their names through the “Make a difference” portal on the village website for consideration as board of ethics members. Sheprow said that nine people have submitted their names. 

Public comments

Comments from the public about the proposed code were mainly about the structure of the board of ethics and how board members are nominated and approved. Some residents expressed concern about the concentration of nomination power with the mayor. Others felt community members should be able to review the credentials of the people nominated.

Tensions were evident in the comments to the board by village resident William Snaden. He is the husband of former trustee and deputy mayor Kathianne Snaden, who fell short of her bid for village mayor against Sheprow this past election cycle. Questioning the authenticity of the board’s commitment to ethics, William Snaden alleged that the push for an ethics code was a guise for a hidden agenda against the former village administration. 

“Is this a genuine push for ethics? Or is it a disguise for another agenda? Or is this just a taxpayer-funded personal vendetta?” Snaden said. He added, “I hope that you join together in voting ‘no’ for this code as it’s currently written.” 

Amid a cascade of accusations, Snaden questioned the ethics of hiring Leventhal, referring to a Newsday article highlighting a $1,000 fine sanctioned against Leventhal by state Supreme Court Justice James McCormack in 2017, according to Newsday.

“Mr. Snaden mentioned a couple of different issues, none of which he is acquainted with the facts,” Leventhal countered. 

Leventhal disputed Snaden’s accusation, and conveyed to the board that the grievance committee examining the sanction concluded there was “no violation of the rules of professional conduct.” 

Snaden pointed out that the village hired Leventhal as the ethics attorney after Sheprow employed him as the attorney for her campaign bid. Snaden alleged this action was unethical. 

Former Mayor Margot Garant followed Snaden by asking why Sheprow did not disclose to the Board of Trustees her professional relationship with Leventhal at the time of his hiring by the village.

Leventhal responded, “There is no requirement in the law for the mayor to disclose that she had been represented by an attorney in an entirely unrelated matter that concluded before the village hired that same attorney as a consultant,” adding, “There is no conflict of interest.” 

Sheprow explained, “I built trust that was started during the election process, and as I continued to research Mr. Leventhal’s experience, it became obvious that he is the premier expert in legal ethics in New York state.”

Village resident Arthur Epp countered Snaden’s suggestion to the board to scrap the proposed ethics code.

“I applaud this initiative. I’ve said this at a previous meeting, I’ve said it in writing. I’m saying it now. I’m more concerned about the possibilities down the road that might occur. I’m not casting stones at anyone in this room,” Epp said. 

Village resident Xena Ugrinsky told the board that she had been paying close attention to the discussions about the proposed code over the past months. 

“I believe that putting this in place will foster more trust in government. Mayor, I think this is one of the reasons you were elected — the people spoke, and I thank you,” Ugrinsky said.

The board closed the public comments for the proposed ethics code and then weighed the concerns voiced by the public about the nomination process. The code was revised to read: 

“The Board of Ethics shall consist of five members appointed by the Village Board of Trustees,” eliminating the language in the draft that placed nominating power with the mayor. 

The board then voted unanimously to pass the replacement to Chapter 41, Code of Ethics. 

The Board of Trustees will hold the next work session on Wednesday, Feb. 14.

Conversations over ethics are ramping up in Port Jefferson, where the village board of trustees is nearing sweeping changes to its Code of Ethics.

A public hearing on the code changes took place on Nov. 20, with the village’s ethics counsel, Steven Leventhal, presenting a draft code that would repeal and replace the existing ethics standards within the Village Code. The proposed code changes include three main categories: a code of conduct, disclosure requirements and administration. [See story, “Port Jeff village board, residents mull over ethics code revamp,” Nov. 25, TBR News Media.]

The board reconvened Tuesday night, Dec. 5, for a work session spanning over four hours.

“The primary purpose of tonight’s meeting is to give you, the board, the opportunity to address any questions that you might have to me and to have a discussion and deliberation on any points that need to be resolved,” Leventhal said.

Leventhal and the trustees walked through the code line by line, clarifying and amending various sections of text along the way.

The board will meet again Monday, Dec. 11, for its monthly general meeting. Leventhal pledged to supply the board with a revised version of the draft code, along with a redline version of the text, before the meeting begins.

Residents can continue submitting written testimony to the village clerk until Thursday, Dec. 7.

To view the entire work session, see the above video.

Steven Leventhal, the Village of Port Jefferson’s ethics counsel, presents proposed ethics code changes during a public hearing Monday night, Nov. 20. Photo by Raymond Janis

Discussions centered around ethics at Village Hall Monday night, Nov. 20.

The Port Jefferson Board of Trustees held a public hearing to consider repealing and replacing Chapter 41 of the Village Code, its Code of Ethics. This ethics code was first adopted by the village board in 1970, according to ecode360, and has seen few amendments since.

Steven Leventhal, the village’s ethics counsel, delivered a lengthy presentation detailing the proposed code changes to the board.

“The primary purpose of the ethics program is not enforcement — it’s not rooting out evildoers,” he said. “Our primary goal is offering guidance to the honest officers and employees of the village.”

Leventhal said that the draft proposal before the board is roughly the same code of ethics adopted by various other municipalities across Long Island and New York state, with some minor local variations.

The proposed code includes three principal categories: a code of conduct, disclosure requirements and administration.

The code of conduct would establish standards for officials and employees, offering guidelines for using public office for private gain, types of prohibited contracts, grounds for recusal, conflicts of interest and investments, gifts and favors.

The section on disclosure requirements outlined how village officials must recuse themselves from particular decisions. Applicants in land use, such as before the zoning and planning boards or Building Department, “must disclose at the time of application the identity of any state or municipal officer or employee that has an interest in the applicant,” the ethics counsel noted.

The section also requires disclosure of clients and customers doing business with the village, with some exceptions to protect confidentiality.

The final section would establish a board of ethics to administer the new code. Leventhal said an effective ethics board must convene at least quarterly, maintaining independence from the appointing authority — namely, the Board of Trustees — and an apolitical nature.

Under the proposed code, ethics board members must be village residents appointed to fixed, staggered terms of service. Under the current language, the board would have enforcement powers to fine up to $10,000 for violations.

During the public comment period, resident Arthur Epp scrutinized the $10,000 figure and questioned the board membership process. He asked the Board of Trustees for a 30-day review period to allow for necessary public input.

Responding, Leventhal advised the village board against overdefining membership criteria to the ethics board, given the village’s relatively low population compared to other municipalities.

Resident Xena Ugrinsky inquired about the process for whistleblowers to submit complaints to the ethics board. Leventhal advised that the board would ideally have counsel or a secretary to receive and process such complaints.

Following these comments, the village board agreed to leave the public comment period open for written testimony to the village clerk until Thursday, Dec. 7.

To read the complete draft of the proposed guidelines, visit portjeff.com/proposedethicscode. To watch the entire meeting, including trustee reports and board resolutions, see the video above.