Friday, 01 November 2013 08:12

Wilton Town Board Accused of Retaliation

By Patricia Older | News

WILTON — Saratoga County seems to be facing an ethical dilemma in light of two, very public issues—the recent arrest of Halfmoon’s supervisor, Mindy Wolmuth, on federal charges for allegedly using her political position for her own personal gain and Malta’s Ethics Board finding 7-0 that town clerk Flo Sickles used town employees to work on Republican Committee activities. Add to the mix the yearlong complaints from some  residents that Wilton’s Town Board retaliated against its ethics board by disbanding them after they concluded an investigation into Councilman Robert Pulsifer with a recommendation that the town adopt a code of conduct for the future.

 

In 2010, an ethics complaint was made concerning Councilman Robert Pulsifer. Because there were no findings of any wrongdoing, the complaint itself would have never been known if Pulsifer had not made it public himself at a town board meeting in 2011.

The committee stated in their findings that while they did not find Pulsifer had violated any ethics laws, investigating one area of the complaint had led them into believing the town should adopt a code of ethics.

The series of events that followed is where things began to spiral downward.

Like most municipal ethics boards, Wilton’s took the matter seriously and asked for the town to secure them a lawyer to advise them along the way.

Gene Cole, who was chairman of the board and had been a member for over a decade, noted that when his first verbal request to Supervisor Art Johnson went unanswered, he put it in writing.

“I wrote a letter to Art not once, but twice recommending that we seek legal counsel,” said Cole, noting that they finally were given the name of an Albany law firm, unbeknownst to them at the time, who was also working on other issues for the town.

“That in and of itself is a conflict of interest,” said Cole, noting ethic boards, including their legal counsel, must not have any possible conflicts of interest.

For 11 months, the committee, consisting of five Wilton residents of varying political affiliations with nearly 40 years of combined experience on the board, investigated the complaint, while also meeting regularly with the lawyer.

“We did not make one report without perusal of the attorney,” said Cole. “The attorney even wrote the final report.”

Finally in early 2011, the Board submitted their findings. And while they did not find Pulsifer had crossed any ethical lines filed in the complaint, they did recommend the town adopt a code of conduct because of his very public persona with his rock band.

“The Ethics Board agrees that Mr. Pulsifer is free to live his private life as he sees fit, nonetheless, the Board disagrees

with Mr. Pulsifer’s statement that the band was merely his ‘private business.’ In fact, Mr. Pulsifer highlights that he is in a band in his public campaign material,” the board wrote in its letter.

Noting that he won the election and is “now a public servant representing the Town,” the ethics board wrote they believe, “…that it is incumbent on Mr. Pulsifer to uphold the expectations of both the public and the Town of Wilton as both a role model and councilman. It is the Ethics Board’s opinion that the statements on [Pulsifer’s] website … and other public statements attributed to Mr. Pulsifer do not adhere to that standard.”

They went on to recommend that the town adopt a “strong” code of conduct for the future.

That did not sit well with Pulsifer, who showed up to the March 2011 meeting in his rock star attire complete with a dangling gold necklace, straw hat and guitar case. When the ethics issue was to be discussed, Pulsifer stood up and recused himself so he could speak as private citizen. Taking a stack of documents from his guitar case, Pulsifer proceeded to plop a stack in front of each council member while accusing the ethics board of over-stepping their responsibilities by investigating his “private life.”

According to the March 3, 2011 town minutes, Pulsifer said the current ethics board was a “runaway board,” which investigated his private life “in retaliation for political disagreements” and that he felt the town’s ethics board “extended their political disagreements

with him in the context of an ethics disclosure.”

He then left the building.

Things should have quieted down, but they didn’t.

At the November 8, 2012 meeting, the town board announced they were disbanding the current ethics board.

Board member Shirley Jung, who has been actively involved in Wilton for 30 years and a member of the ethics

board for eight, was also up for reappointment at the time.

“Art [Johnson] told me right out that Pulsifer was going to vote against [me] and that I would not be reappointed,” said Jung.

It was at that meeting Johnson presented a new ethics law, which not only called for the immediate disbanding of the current board, but also removed the clause that protected the person making the complaint, making it mandatory that the accused “shall have the

right to be promptly informed of the nature and cause of the accusation; to be provided with the names of the witnesses, any statements given and any evidence considered by the EAB, and this shall include the prompt disclosure of the name of any complainant against the accused...”

Robert Freeman, executive director of New York State Committee on Open Government said that by Wilton requiring the complainant’s be disclosed to the accused, discourages people. 

“That is an unwarranted invasion of that person’s privacy,” said Freeman. “Your identity is irrelevant. All they should care about is if the complaint is valid. If they start disclosing who made the complaint—that will discourage people. I am not sure if this is good

judgment on their part.”

As for disbanding the board, Freeman noted that municipalities are only required by law to have a code of ethics.

On December 6, the Town Board adopted the new ethics law, which called for the immediate disbandment of the remaining three members. (Patricia Studenroft had resigned in November following what she called, in a letter to the town board, threats and

intimidation tactics against her by several board members, including Pulsifer and Robert Rice.)

But, technically, according to the State Attorney General’s Office, the ethics board members were still active—a newly adopted law does not become effective until 20 days after it is adopted—and they had another ethics complaint in November and had requested legal assistance.

The request was met with a number of letters from both Rice and Councilman Steven Streicher telling Cole he was no longer a part of the Wilton Ethics Board, some even going as far as to threaten legal action against Cole.

Alleging Cole and the other ethic board members broke the law, Rice wrote, “Mr. Cole, advise of counsel is recommended. As for me, I plan on pursuing every legal avenue available to me.”

The letter was written from Rice in his position as deputy supervisor.

When contacted, Johnson at first said the original ethics law needed to be updated, but when pushed for specific details, said he needed to re-read it to re-familiar himself. Johnson canceled the subsequent meeting for those clarifications because “other town business came up,” and did not return several phone calls to reschedule.

Rice denied there had been any retaliation against the ethics board and said he fully backed the new ethics law, including the disclosure clause and the disbandment of the board.

“They basically say [Pulsifer] did not do anything wrong, but they went off the wall when they recommended a code of conduct and incorporating it with the original complaint,” said Rice.

But Cole countered that every step the ethics board made were with the legal council provided and paid for by the town.

“I would like to point out that the entire recommendation, which [Pulsifer] referred to as ‘illicit’, was approved by the attorney provided to guide the Ethics Board,” wrote Studenroth in her letter of resignation from the board. “…Ethics takes many forms, not just financial, but also moral, social, individual and global in nature. It is time the town acknowledges that and does the right thing.”

When asked why the town board decided to disband the ethics board rather than address the legal counsel who had been paid for by the town and who approved their final recommendation, Rice said the members were ultimately responsible for their actions

even though Pulsifer’s relationship with the band had been part of the original complaint.

“There was no signature from the lawyer on it—they need to take ownership for what they signed,” said Rice. “We felt after that we needed a new board.”

So far, a year later, a new board has yet to be appointed and the final complaint is still uninvestigated.

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