York County commissioners consider public reprimand of budget committee over ethics policy

Posted May 17, 2013, at 1:48 p.m.

ALFRED, Maine — Members of the York County budget committee could find themselves censured by county commissioners, depending on the outcome of a June 5 public hearing.

York County commissioners Wednesday unanimously voted to conduct a hearing that day, reasoning the budget committee has had ample time to sign a disclosure form that goes along with an ethics policy that commissioners approved late last year.

A censure is a public reprimand. But County Manager Greg Zinser said failure to sign the disclosure form could — depending on the circumstance — also lead to commissioners overturning votes taken by the budget committee.

Commissioners say the budget committee is a part of county government and therefore subject to the ethics policy, as are commissioners and employees. Non-union employees have signed the form; the policy is part of the bargaining process with unionized employees, according to Zinser.

The York County budget committee, which has the final vote on the county’s annual spending plan, was created by the Legislature in 1993, replacing the old system where legislators approved county budgets.

Budget committee Chairman John Sylvester said the issue is not as simple as merely signing a disclosure form.

“Commissioners don’t elect us or appoint us, and we do not report to them,” said Sylvester in a telephone interview Thursday.

He said the budget committee has a degree of autonomy since its creation by the Legislature two decades ago. He said, in his view, commissioners are attempting to “break” the budget committee because of its authority over the budget. He referred to the commissioners’ attempt last year to conduct the budget committee caucus, where members are elected; the indication they intend to do so again in ensuing years; and a failed attempt a few years ago to pass state legislation that would change the way the budget committee operates.

“This code of ethics is clearly being used, in my view, to break the back of the budget committee,” said Sylvester. “That’s why there is so much resistance.

“They’re trying to grind us into the ground.”

Commissioners two weeks ago said they’d be discussing compliance with the ethics policy Wednesday. Chairwoman Sallie Chandler said during the meeting that Sylvester had written to ask for a delay in the discussion.

“It’s time we established compliance,” said Commissioner Gary Sinden, in part. He said the county had received no grievance from the budget committee. “The policy has passed and it’s not open to negotiation. So I don’t understand the need to wait any longer.”

Commissioner Richard Dutremble agreed, saying the budget committee has had several months to address the matter.

The county’s code of ethics is modeled after a longtime Bangor ethics code and was designed to foster transparency and accountability, commissioners have previously said. The ethics code spells out how those covered by the policy should conduct themselves in the area of contract awards when a financial interest may be involved, and in decisions involving hiring, promotions, discipline or layoffs. It lays out prohibitions on the use of county property for private purposes. The policy defines conflict of interest and avoidance of an appearance of a conflict, and with how those issues are to be dealt.

Violators who are county employees could be dismissed or face other disciplinary action as outlined in personnel policies. Other violators could be censured after a hearing conducted by county commissioners, according to the policy.

“This policy is for the entire county,” said Zinser, the county manager, Thursday. “What is the issue with signing the disclosure? If you don’t sign it, are you telling me there is a conflict?”

Members of the budget committee will meet May 23 at Alfred Town Hall to discuss the matter.

Some members of the budget committee attended Wednesday’s commissioners’ meeting. After the session broke up, one opined that commissioners had already made their decision.

“The handwriting is on the wall,” said Dwight “Chip” Venell. “They will censure us, I bet.”

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