Editorial: Not the greatest benchmark

On Tuesday, Nov. 12, the Southington Town Council began the 2019-21 term with all the fanfare, pomp and circumstance that one would expect. It was wonderful to see the council finally addressing procedural issues that have plagued previous boards, especially the process of appointing a town attorney—a lightning rod over the last four years. But if this meeting was the benchmark for the way this new council will be prioritizing ethics, it was a little disappointing.

Over the last half decade, the council has done a terrible job of considering ethics before discussions or votes. At times, ethics issues were an afterthought. At times, concerns were ignored entirely. Even in their best moments, past councils have been more focused on finding ethics loopholes than on avoiding ethics issues. We’ve seen councilors begrudgingly leave discussions about their employer only when forced to abstain (after kicking and screaming on a soap box). We’ve seen councilors face scrutiny after casting procedural votes on projects that affect their businesses. We’ve seen councilors hold the board hostage during budget discussions that could affect their paychecks for multiple town jobs.

We know that votes about council chairs, vice chairs, and minority leaders are mostly ceremonial, but they are votes nonetheless. We were disappointed that each one of those votes passed, 9-0. We think that 8-0 votes, with each nominee abstaining, would have set a better ethics benchmark at this council’s first business meeting.

We think public officials should always check themselves before they cast any vote. “Do I have any private financial or personal interest in the outcome?” “Will I benefit from this vote in any way?” “How does it appear?” The Southington charter says that conflicts aren’t just financial. Officials shouldn’t vote for their wallets, their causes—or for themselves. We expect officials to err on the side of caution since it’s better to abstain than be wrong. It would go a long way toward reversing the lack of trust that drove voters to the ballot box in recent elections.

We would have loved to see Rev. Victoria Triano abstain from voting for herself as chairman. We would have loved to see Tom Lombardi abstain from voting for himself as vice chairman, and we would have loved to see Chris Palmieri abstain from voting for himself as minority leader. On a night devoted to fanfare, pomp and circumstance, this could have been a really great sign that conflicts of interest are finally in the crosshairs of council leadership. Instead, it proved that it’s not even on their radar. To be fair, these votes won’t result in the expenditure of municipal funds, so technically it didn’t violate the code. But ethics shouldn’t hang on technicalities. We doubt anybody even considered these conflicts before casting votes for themselves. That’s a problem…and a trend.

We were hoping to finally see the ethics code treated with the importance it deserves—front and center—but it looks like we’ll have to keep waiting. We were hoping that ethics would be the measuring stick for this council since previous councils have so often ignored it. It would go a long way toward repairing the damage…and the public trust.

Luckily, these were minor votes, but we hope councilors start focusing on ethics now before they face those bigger, more important decisions—like the budget. The ethics code statement of purpose says, “The trust of the public is essential for government to function effectively.” We couldn’t agree more. Southington was once the leader in state ethics discussions, but it’s not anymore. This council can change that. We want a council so far above reproach, so righteous, and so open that we will follow them to the ends of the earth—because we trust them. But,as the saying goes, trust is earned.

To comment on this story or to contact Southington Observer editor John Goralski, email him at JGoralski@SouthingtonObserver.com.

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