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Thursday, 12 December 2013 15:28

Hard Times in Malta

Ethics Complaints Move Up the Ladder to State Attorney General

MALTA – “I don’t care what happens to me. This kind of stuff must stop.” 

- Lynda Bablin

Saratoga TODAY has exclusively learned that Lynda Bablin, Malta town tax receiver, has filed a complaint with New York State Attorney General Eric Schneiderman’s office alleging improprieties in the way the Malta Town Board has attempted to circumvent her original ethics complaint, which was initiated on September 11. 

Saratoga TODAY has received documents, which in some cases were notarized; email trees and other supportive materials from Ms. Bablin that appear to indicate that the town board sought ways to avoid acting on her complaint. 

Ms. Bablin’s original complaint was regarding the conduct of Town Clerk Flo Sickels. As reported in Saratoga TODAY on November 1, the town of Malta’s ethics committee, in a 7-0 vote, found that Ms. Sickels had “…solicited on multiple occasions, employees to make a political contribution, through time, effort, endorsement or signature” on behalf of the Malta Republican Committee during town working hours. The ethics committee’s findings also noted, among other things, that more than one town employee described specific examples of behavior by Ms. Sickels that they believed were retaliatory against people who objected or did not comply with her requests.  

This report was issued by the ethics committee on October 28, which is a significant date: The Malta Town Board, which installed the original guidelines for filing and processing procedures, had given themselves up to 45 days to act upon the ethics committee’s findings. They could accept, modify or reject the findings which called for Ms. Sickels’ censure on those two counts. 45 days from October 28 is December 12 – yesterday. 

Ms. Bablin claims that the town board instead concentrated on procedure instead of substance. “Keep in mind, these were procedures that the town board itself had approved. They were listed in the employee manual. I used their guidelines,” Ms. Bablin said. “And I followed everything I was given to the letter.”  

During the next regular meeting on November 6, the town board held an executive session, which is closed to the public, to discuss the ethics committee’s findings. 

In the public portion of the meeting, town board members (with Councilperson Tara Thomas recusing herself from all discussions, public and private, because she is Ms. Sickels’ daughter) discussed ancillary recommendations by the ethics committee, such as an overhaul of the ethics section of the employee manual. 

There was by no means universal agreement among board members as to whether any changes were necessary. 

Councilpersons Maggi Ruisi and John Hartzell indicated that procedures for filing complaints were very clear. However, the town board did agree that the ethics committee should have the advice and counsel of Attorney Christine Karsky to them at least for the balance of the year. Ms. Karsky had previously advised the ethics committee on other matters (though not on Ms. Bablin’s complaint up to this point.) 

But there was no public finding on the merits of Ms. Bablin’s original complaint at that November 6 meeting.

A key point is that the ethics committee proceedings are largely done in secret in order to protect the confidentiality complainants. 

A member of the ethics committee had contacted Ms. Bablin on November 3 to say that it would be advisable that 1) she have her complaint form notarized, with her address and contact information and 2) that she state in writing that she was signing her complaint under penalty of perjury. 

“This was my understanding anyway,” Ms. Bablin said, “so I had no problem doing what was requested, even though these requirements were not specified when I had originally filed my complaint in September.” The now-notarized form was completed and dated on November 13 and sent back to the ethics committee via snail mail. 

What makes this interesting is that, though Malta town code chapter 11, section 18, subsection C that Ms. Bablin referenced does state that a complainant attest to the facts under threat of perjury, it does not specify a notarization requirement. 

Ms. Bablin was working with the knowledge that she had at the time, and immediately responded to the request for the additional notarization and information almost immediately when requested. 

It would appear that the town board either had no idea, or perhaps chose to ignore that such a contact and those subsequent actions had transpired though, for on November 18, five days later, at a special town board meeting for the purpose of discussing the ethics committee findings, the town board in a resolution remanded the complaint back to the ethics committee, stating that:

“WHEREAS the Town Board wishes to provide the Ethics Committee with legal assistance and to ensure that the procedures required by Town Code Chapter 11, Section 18  are followed, specifically: 1) that the complaint be signed under penalty of perjury; and that 2) that “clear and compelling evidence is used as the standard of proof rather than “weight of the evidence”; and further that, though not specifically required by 11-18 (emphasis added) the subject of the complaint should be provided with a copy…” 

In response to this, Ms. Bablin read a statement to the town board at the November 18 meeting which said in part: 

“There was a so-called established process for filing complaints with the committee at the time the complaint was made. Those processes were followed to a tee. Now you are trying to retroactively change the process that was in place at the time in the hopes of coming to a different result…. In my opinion you are doing nothing more than shooting the messenger because you didn’t like their findings…. This Board is doing everything in their power to bury this complaint…” 

Later, Ms. Bablin amplified “The three things they cited were non-issues. The first, I had already done five days before. Second, the ethics committee voted unanimously twice. Doesn’t a 7-0 vote indicate that the evidence the ethics committee received was “clear and compelling? The final requirement of notifying the complainant is something completely new — and in fact, in this case Flo was offered a copy, which she refused.”

After the remand, Lynda Bablin gathered her documentation and waited. After nearly another month of waiting for any result, she knew her next step was clear: next stop, Attorney General. 

Her complaint was received and acknowledged by the AG’s office. She was told it would be three to five weeks before they are able to begin the process of examination. 

One other fact worth noting at this juncture is that all the members of the Malta Town Board are Republicans, including Flo Sickels. 

But Lynda Bablin is also a Republican, an elected official whose term runs through 2015. The State Attorney General, however, is a Democrat. 

2014 should be an interesting year in the Town of Malta. 

 

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