A battle in the Monroe County Legislature over Board of Ethics reform reached a truce on Monday when a bipartisan compromise was announced.
Under the compromise plan, an independent commission would be formed—with members from the Republican majority, the Democratic minority and the Black and Asian Democratic Caucus, and county executive—to review and recommend changes.
“It’s imperative that the Board of Ethics remains a non-biased arbiter of the conduct of County Employees and Elected Officials, leaving no room for political games,” a statement released by Republican lawmakers says.
The statement adds: “There’s no denying that Republicans and Democrats have different priorities on what true ethics reform looks like in Monroe County. 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.”
Democratic lawmaker Yversha Roman on Tuesday voiced enthusiasm for the compromise tempered by her belief that the Republicans have obstructed previous ethic reform efforts.
“We look forward to transparently setting up this committee and finally moving forward with some kind of meaningful reform action,” Roman said. “We have been fighting publicly for ethics reform for at least five months now. We raised the red flag about serious deficiencies in the ethics code, but our previous attempt was silenced and tabled by Republicans.”
Roman added that she is waiting to hear how members of the committee will be selected and wants to make sure it will be a fair and transparent process.
The Republican statement late Monday was followed by one from Democratic lawmaker Vincent Felder, D-Rochester, who requested that the recent proposal he co-wrote with Majority Leader Steve Brew, R-Churchville, be tabled.
The legislation authored by Felder and Brew had been the latest move in a feud between Democratic County Executive Adam Bello and opponents in the Legislature over ethics reform. In April, Bello issued a proposal to amend the county’s code of conduct by clearly defining sexual harassment as violating county policy. It also would prohibit county government workers from doing business with the county for two years after the end of their employment.
By contrast, the measure proposed by Brew and Felder would prohibit all county management and professional employees from earning secondary income in addition to their government job, forbid the release of Board of Ethics reports without the approval of a two-thirds Legislature majority, and expand the board to seven members from three.
Employees who now earn a secondary income include lawyers with the district attorney’s and public defender’s offices, health care workers serving foster care children and, perhaps most prominently amid the COVID-19 pandemic, Michael Mendoza M.D., the county’s public health commissioner.
The proposal was sharply criticized by Bello, who in a press conference on July 19 claimed it was “dangerous” and “should not have seen the light of day.” He also said he was prepared to veto the bill if necessary.
“This purported ethics reform is either rooted in gross incompetence and a total lack of understanding how government actually works, or it codifies partisan coverups of bad acts while perpetuating a hostile attack on county employees who serve our community,” Bello said.
In response, Felder told the Beacon that the employment issue would be fixed in the law-making process. The more important reform, he maintained, was protecting employees from unfair release of Board of Ethics reports.
“The accused have rights too,” Felder said. “This measure makes sure even if they’re accused of something, they’re able to have the protection they deserve.”
The Brew-Felder legislation would require ethics reports to first be vetted by the Legislature and released only after a two-thirds vote. Felder says this would protect county employees and their reputations from political attacks.
Currently, the Board of Ethics and the county executive have the authority to release investigation reports at their own discretion. Most recently, this was done in the case involving county Legislator Ernest Flagler-Mitchell, D-Rochester, who was accused by a dozen or more women of sending inappropriate or explicit messages and photos. The allegations against Flagler-Mitchell in part spurred Bello’s ethics reform proposal in April.
While the district attorney’s investigation into the affair determined that Flagler-Mitchell’s actions were not criminal in nature, the Board of Ethics ruled that his exchanges with LaKaya Sinclair, who was a 19-year-old at the time, violated Monroe County’s code of conduct. Politicians, including Bello, called for his resignation following the ethics violation report.
Before stepping down from his leadership position in June, Flagler-Mitchell was the head of the Black and Asian Democratic Caucus, a splinter group that often butts heads with Bello. For that reason, Felder thinks the release of the report, in early June, was timed to cause Flagler-Mitchell to lose his primary election race.
“It had the sole intention of destroying (Flagler-Mitchell’s) reputation,” contends Felder, who, while not an official member of the caucus, often aligns with its members. “(Neither) his lawyers nor (Flagler-Mitchell) himself saw that report and got a chance to defend themselves before it was released. His family was devastated.”
In his July 19 statement, Bello blasted the proposal to require a two-thirds majority vote of the Legislature to permit the release of Board of Ethics reports.
“Rather than strengthening and empowering the county’s Board of Ethics and ethics laws to hold violators accountable for their actions, this legislation would handcuff the ethics board’s ability to release the findings of any investigation and ensure the public is aware of any violations committed by elected officials. In fact, their law violates existing State Freedom of Information laws and provides criminal penalties for making this information available to the public,” Bello said.
“The priorities demonstrated by this proposed legislation are unconscionable,” added Bello. “Using the pretext of ethics reform to hide information about legislators like Ernest Flagler-Mitchell who use their positions to harass their constituents and limit the public disclosure of wrongdoing, while at the same time penalizing those who led us through a pandemic, is a shameful abuse of power.”
Bello’s office on Tuesday did not respond to a request for additional comment.
The Black and Asian Democratic Caucus was formed last year in order to “amplify the voices and grievances of communities of color within Rochester.” It often votes with Republicans, forming a 20-9 supermajority in the Legislature, where GOP lawmakers hold a 15-14 edge.
However, with Flagler-Mitchell, fellow caucus member Frank Keophetlasy, D-Rochester, and Felder falling to Democrat challengers in the June primary, the influence of the caucus seems to be waning. Following the general election in November, Democrats friendlier to Bello could take office and change the balance of power in the Legislature.
Jacob Schermerhorn is a Rochester Beacon intern. He is pursuing a graduate degree in journalism at City University of New York.