When the Town Council decided to reimburse Tom Lombardi for his legal expenses with the recent ethics complaint, it finally put to rest the issue. Now is the time to revisit our code of ethics, armed with the lessons learned from this botched investigation, and try to avoid a repeat performance.
When Southington enacted its ethics code on May 2, 1977, we were one of a handful of towns to lead the discussion. We are no longer leading that discussion.
That was clear when the final decision about attorney fees defaulted to the state regulations instead of checking our own precedents. The truth is that, regardless of the state statute, Southington had already established this policy back in April 1988 when, by an 8-1 vote, the council decided on a policy drawn up by former Town Attorney David Kelley: “The reasonable attorney fees…incurred by a Town appointed or elected unsalaried official in regards to a complaint against such a person which has been filed with the Town’s Board of Ethics, shall be reimbursed by the Town.”
There was an initial limit of $1,500, but we can all agree that attorney fees have escalated since 1988. Thankfully, our Town Attorney addressed the current costs before the council voted to approve them. For those that are still grumbling about the payment, it’s worth noting that our town policy, as well as the state regulation, makes no stipulation whether the person is found guilty or innocent. The intent was to protect unpaid municipal officials from these costs. That’s that.
Still, there are two issues that need to be addressed going forward. First, should we continue to shoulder the burden of costs with no insurance? Second, should we shore up our ethics code to become a leader in the state once again?
Payment for the attorney fees was denied by the town’s liability carrier—not because they cared whether Lombardi was innocent or guilty—but because those legal fees are not covered under the policy we purchased. We need to determine if we should purchase this coverage, or if we want to continue to accept the exposure. If it was $1,500 in 1988 and $25,000 in 2016, what will it be in 2030 or 2050?
The more glaring issue is the code, itself. Decisions to escalate complaints to the public level—thus exposing the town to attorney fees and more—is in the hands of a four-person board, with the help of a consulting attorney. What are the qualifications to serve on this board? Practically nothing.
The only qualification is that the board shall be composed of “resident electors, to be appointed by the Town Council” and an even distribution of members by party. The way it works is the parties appoint them, and that’s it.
Although nobody questions the character of anybody on the current board, it is usually comprised of business leaders, former politicians, bankers, investment advisors, real estate agents, and an occasional attorney. There is no way to be sure that anybody nominated can run a legal investigation, follow procedures at hearings, or make a legal judgment that will hold up on appeal. Even a licensed attorney might have no experience with courtroom procedure or trial law. We leave this decision to party leaders? That’s a horrible thought. It was clear from this last debacle that politics trumps good judgment when it comes to our town’s party leaders.
This is even more important considering that the town has to pay the lawyers for defendants so that they can punch holes in our investigations and point out errors in our legal procedures so that decisions can be overturned in appeal.
We need to establish qualifications for board members. We need to vet them in a public process, and we need to give them training. It’s time to fix the code or forget about it.