GEORGETOWN — At long last, the town has an Ethics Commission — a five-member body selected by Mayor Bill West that has spurred some concern.
Approved unanimously by Town Council at its March 24 virtual meeting, the commission, as defined by town code, recommends rules of conduct for public employees and officials, as well as mayor and council, and can conduct investigations of alleged violations of those rules in conduct hearings.
“Well, the code has been in the book, and we’ve come to a time in this country where people are taking shots at people. When I walk in this Town Hall and I see employees crying and I see something is wrong, something is going on,” said Mayor West during the meeting. “Which way do they have to turn? Where do they have to go?
“(Town Manager Eugene Dvornick) is so busy. Are they all going to run to Gene?” the mayor said. “Or wouldn’t it be nice to have this committee that they (can) call, run their problem through, discuss and get the help that they need?”
He continued, “They need another outsource that they can go to. This provides that outsource. With things like that, we’ve got to keep ourselves under control as respected officials and employees of the town.”
Mayor West’s approved five picks for the commission are Gary Tongue, Martin Donovan and James Hudson, who all will serve three-year terms, and Curtis Howes and Anthony Neal, both with two-year terms.
Commission terms are five years; however, they will be staggered at the start.
Mayor West said that he did ask two women to be on the commission — MaLinda Howes (whose husband was subsequently selected) and former Councilwoman Chris Lecates (who is retired). Both graciously declined, Mayor West said.
The topic of an Ethics Commission was addressed in Georgetown’s code in 2007 and amended in 2009, but a commission was never actually formed — until the March 24 action.
Town Councilman Steve Hartstein said he believes the commission will be beneficial.
“I really don’t see why this would be a bad thing. As a matter of fact, it probably should have been done a long time ago,” he said. “I’m not sure why anybody would not want this.”
Councilwoman Angela Townsend questioned the selection of the commission, suggesting that the five members could be chosen by the mayor, in addition to four council members.
“Would you be receptive to — there is five members — mayor and council each pick a member from their ward?” she asked.
Mayor West disagreed, saying, “It doesn’t read that (way) in the code.”
During public comment, the commission’s all-male composition drew a response.
“I appreciate and I applaud the mayor for forming his committee. But what happens if you have one of the females there in town who have an issue or a complaint against a male?” said Georgetown resident Jane Hovington. “Do you feel that they will feel comfortable to come in with a whole room full of men to discuss what her issue is?
“That, in itself, could be intimidating,” she continued. “This is just something to think about because I know the committee has already been selected. It is something that consideration should be given to, especially in this time where mental health is a real issue, and, in most organizations … if a woman has an issue that she needs to discuss, she needs to feel comfortable about coming in and discussing it with the group.”
Linda Dennis said she felt the same way.
“I am very disappointed that there is not a woman on that committee,” she said during public commentary.
Ms. Dennis also asked about the Ethics Commission’s authority and responsibilities.
“I’m confused because, as the mayor was speaking and as some of you were speaking, there is a difference between a Code of Ethics Committee and a Grievance Committee. They are very different,” she said. “So I am confused as to what the responsibility of this group is. If it is grievance, then it should be a Grievance Committee. A Code of Ethics Committee deals with … conflicts of interest between employees and businesses and so forth.
“I’m not sure what the town’s goal is in establishing this committee. But it needs to be very clear what the intention is and what the powers of these committee members are.”