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County Democrats propose new ethics oversight office

From left, Legislator Cindy Kaleh, Assistant Minority Leader Carrie M. Andrews and Minority Leader Ted O’Brien announce plans Thursday for an Office of Public Integrity. Todd Etshman

At a press conference in Monroe County Legislative Chambers yesterday, county Democrats announced a proposal to create an Office of Public Integrity to oversee ethics issues in county government.

The proposed office would be managed by five members, consisting of two members appointed by the majority leader, two members appointed by the minority leader and one appointed by the county executive.

Assistant Minority Leader Carrie M. Andrews said that the function of the office is to investigate the misuse of funds, theft, fraud and related misconduct regarding county operations.

Andrews said the OPI would have the authority to conduct spot financial reviews and discretionary audits of financial records and procedures in all county departments, bureaus and subdivisions and to “take corrective action before it becomes a scandal.” The office will also be asked to make policy recommendations regarding fraud prevention and ways to promote efficiency in county operations.

“Over the last several years our community has been witness to an overwhelming number of ethical lapses and scandalous events related to the conduct of public officials,” said Democratic Minority Leader Ted O’Brien. “We’re talking about a persistent, prevalent problem here in Monroe County and we need to address it.”

Andrews said that unlike the existing Independent Accountability Council, the OPI board would not report to the county executive, it would report to the Legislature bi-annually and as requested.

“The county administration needs to make changes in the way it does business and it needs to do it now,” Andrews said. “Typically, this administration reacts when something happens. It is no longer appropriate to just react; the time has come to be proactive.”

Although there is a patchwork of oversight entities already in place, according to Deputy Minority Leader Vincent Esposito, it was unclear as to what exactly they do. Andrews said the Independent Accountability Council has not responded to recent Democratic requests for information.

“[N]ot only do we think things are bad, but the community does do,” O’Brien said.
The City of Rochester, the State of New York, and New York and Albany counties already have similar offices. The OPI would work with the county’s existing whistleblower hotline.

However, Brighton Supervisor Sandy Frankel, speaking in support of the proposed law, said some people still fear retribution from whistle blowing. And although county employees are set to receive ethics training to help solve the problem, Frankel said the training is “a little like closing the barn door after the horse has bolted.” 

The proposed OPI would work for all municipalities and school districts in Monroe County, Andrews said. A task force would be formed to study how to achieve regional collaboration with the county OPI.

Democratic leaders said the proposed law will be in committees for input and debate when the Legislature meets the week of March 21 and if passed the OPI would begin operating in January 2012.

“The state has an Office of Public Integrity and it hasn’t worked at all,” said Monroe County Director of Communications Noah Lebowitz. “An Office of Public Integrity is not a silver bullet. The reality of governing and managing human behavior is that people are going to make mistakes and we have a mechanism already in place to find out when that happens and to take necessary measures to take appropriate action.”

Lebowitz said the Independent Accountability Council serves many of the same roles the proposed OPI would without the cost of adding several employees.

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