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AG wants town ethics info


CAPE VINCENT — Towns in New York could be in for an ethical revamping.

About time, those on both sides of Cape Vincent's wind fight say.

Attorney General Eric T. Schneiderman is requesting the state's 932 towns to send his office their codes of ethics, a major point of contention in towns including Cape Vincent, where wind-power development is debated.

The attorney general's office, which has received numerous complaints over the years about supposed ethically questionable conduct among members of both sides of Cape Vincent's wind-power debate, is pressing towns to become more self reliant on ethical questions that are under, or should be under, the purview of local board of ethics and strong ethics codes.

“The towns and the villages and the cities are in the best positions of anyone to make these decisions that need to be made when ethical questions arise,” said Martin J. Mack, a top official in Mr. Schneiderman's office.

It would make the AG's office a reference point for ethics complaints, and could prompt some towns, like Cape Vincent, to revamp their decades-old codes.

In Cape Vincent, those who don't want wind-power development in town have accused certain Town Council members of being conflicted pawns of the alternative energy industry with whom they hold leases. Those who support wind power, on the other hand, complained when the anti-wind-power town supervisor, Urban C. Hirschey, leaked confidential documents to an anti-wind-power group.

While both matters were referred to the attorney general's office — *the conflict of interest complaint during the tenure of Andrew M. Cuomo, who is now governor, and the Soundgate matter during the tenure of Mr. Schneiderman — neither seemed to have a state-mandated resolution in the offing. Mr. Schneiderman declined to investigate Mr. Hirschey.

That's because such matters are resolved more easily at the local level — as long as the town has a well-defined and enforceable ethics code.

Like many towns in New York, Cape Vincent adopted an ethics policy in the 1970s. It is based on a cookie-cutter approach — a document just over three pages in length with blanks to fill in pertinent information, like “The Town of (Cape Vincent).” The document still assumes that all members of council are men (“He shall not...”). It could use a refresher, those on both sides of the wind debate say.

“When we were out campaigning, the conflicts issue and the ethics were a big issue for voters everywhere,” said Clifford P. Schneider, a Republican aligned with the anti-wind-power movement who was elected to the Town Council in November.

Mr. Schneider said that ethics documents would be task number one for the new council.

“We're going to want a code that's really got some teeth to it,” Mr. Schneider said.

As it stands, the town does not have an ethics board. Though it is not required by law, the attorney general's office recommends it. Mr. Schneider, the town councilman, said he would be open to any option that's on the table.

John L. Byrne III, another town councilman-elect and a Republican who opposes wind-power development, said the town has good ethics rules, they just need to be enforced.

“I think we're open to considering different ideas,” Mr. Byrne said.

Donald J. Mason, a Democratic town councilman who was voted out of office this year, said that he followed ethics rules when he was in office. He didn't vote on wind matters, but spoke about them publicly, he said. And the ethics charges have two sides. Mr. Mason said that Mr. Hirschey behaved unethically when he released documents pertaining to a wind-power study.

“I like Urban and all, don't get me wrong,” Mr. Mason said. “But what he did was wrong.”

*Correction: Pandora's Box of Rocks notes that the Soundgate matter was during the Schneiderman tenure in the AG's office, not Mr. Cuomo's, as I originally reported.

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