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Authors of County Ethics Proposal Call for Independent Commission

Patti Singer

Monroe County Office Building. File photo

In an effort to take politics out of ethics reform, one author of a controversial bill has agreed to table his proposal and call for an independent commission to sort out what reform needs to look like while the other author announced just such a panel.

However, none of the news releases sent July 26 said when a commission would be formed. A call to the Republican majority office was not immediately returned.

Monroe County Democratic Legislator Vincent Felder said he was asking the legislature to hold off on the proposal he submitted earlier in the month. In a statement, he called for Legislature President Dr. Joe Carbone to convene a bipartisan committee to review the county’s ethics laws.

“While I remain (committed) to a thorough overhaul of the County’s ethics rules and the Ethics Board itself … it has become abundantly clear to me that too many of my fellow Democrats are more interested in playing politics with this issue and using it to try and win elections than they are about enacting substantive ethics reform.”

Also on July 26, Republican Majority Leader Steve Brew issued a statement that after discussion with the Republican Majority and the Black and Asian Democratic Caucus, “it was decided that the logical path forward in reforming the Monroe County Board of Ethics is the creation of an independent commission to review, and enact needed changes to this important function of county government.”

Felder sent his announcement on letterhead that said Democratic Minority Leader. However, he has aligned himself with the four-member Black and Asian Democratic Caucus, which often votes as a bloc with Republicans.

The nine other Democrats recognize Yversha Roman as minority leader.  

She issued a statement that said in part, “The (Democratic) Caucus supports the move by County Legislature Majority Leader Steve Brew to table his proposed ethics legislation. In tabling the measure, Legislator Brew pledged to depoliticize this vital issue and Democrats will hold him accountable to that standard.”

According to Brew, the commission will consist of members appointed by Republican Majority, Democrat Minority and Black and Asian caucuses, legislature president and county executive. Brew wrote that the Republican Majority “will work in concert with the Monroe County Law Department in the creation of this commission.”

The announcement came a week after Monroe County Executive Adam Bello labeled a proposal from Democrat Vince Felder and Republican Steve Brew as “dangerous” because it would have made it a crime to let the public know the findings of ethics investigations and it would have banned outside jobs for some higher-level county employees.

The prohibition on outside employment could have forced Dr. Michael Mendoza out of his post as commissioner of the Monroe County Department of Public Health. Mendoza needs to see patients to maintain board certification. County law was changed under a Republican administration in 2016 when Mendoza took the health commissioner job to allow him to continue in his practice. He sees patients twice a week at UR Medicine’s Highland Family Medicine.

In his criticism of the proposed legislation, Bello said ethics reform should enhance transparency and allow voters to see what their elected officials are doing. He said the proposed bill moved in the opposite direction.

Politics was the subtext in the statements about the formation of the commission.

Brew wrote in this statement that Republicans and Democrats have different priorities on what constitutes ethics reform. “In talking with our colleagues across the aisle, it was determined that the formation of an independent commission to review and recommend changes to the Board of Ethics would be the fairest and most transparent method of enacting these needed reforms.”

Brew also said the Board of Ethics needed to remain “a non-partisan independent body, with no room for political polarization among its members.”

Felder wrote that ethics reform has to deal with harassment and sexual harassment “and make sure that we have strong rules to prevent them from occurring.”

Felder also said accused individuals have to be treated fairly throughout the investigative process, and made reference to an investigation of “a sitting (l)egislator that brought personal information not germane to his investigation into the public sphere must and will be eliminated.” He also said that members of the board cannot be “political cronies.”

Roman also wrote, “ … Though we remain optimistic for a bipartisan solution, we will continue to push for legislation that holds (l)egislators and (c)ounty officials to the highest ethical standards.”