Amid questions of timing and a suggestion of its political motivation, Riverside’s village board on Nov. 7 shot down a request to discuss drafting a code of conduct for elected and appointed officials.
Split along partisan lines, the board voted 3 to 3, with Village President Michael Gorman abstaining, on whether to move forward with a discussion of such a code for elected officials.
Trustees Mark Shevitz, James Reynolds and Lonnie Sacchi, who are aligned with Gorman, voted against moving forward. Trustees Ben Sells, Jean Sussman and Joseph Ballerine, who are also aligned politically, voted for it.
Gorman, who came under fire last month when a village employee on an online chat forum publicly accused him of inappropriate behavior, took a pass on the vote, effectively killing the discussion.
Sells, who brought the issue to the table and drafted the proposed code, said such a code was necessary because there is no procedure in place for addressing complaints against elected officials. Right now, the board deals with these kinds of complaints on an ad hoc basis, which Sells feels should be avoided.
“At this point in our village code there are no procedures in place that actually articulate what are the powers of the board, what they are, with regard to situations like this,” said Sells.
“In a situation like this it seems to me that the important thing is that both the person complaining of the misconduct and the respondent to the complaint need to know what specifically the procedures are going to be followed, so that we know we’re going to have a fair, objective and timely response to these kinds of complaints,” he said.
The code of conduct as presented for discussion included information on how village trustees and commissioners ought to conduct themselves in both official and unofficial settings. It also included provisions for how to file complaints, time limits for such filings and a procedure for investigating such claims.
In addition, the code also included penalties for those found guilty of misconduct, with sanctions ranging from reprimand to, in the case of volunteer commissioners, removal from their posts.
The penalty portion of the code probably would have required extensive discussion among village board members, particularly with respect to privacy issues.
“I think a well-drafted policy gives a roadmap to what needs to be done, and it actually protects us as elected officials,” Ballerine said. “I think it protects us as much as it protects the public.”
But opponents maintained that such a code of conduct and set of procedures was simply unnecessary.
“We’re solving a non-existent problem,” said Sacchi. “What is the problem that we’re trying to solve? Are we inventing a make-believe problem and then coming up with procedures to solve them?”
Reynolds said the code of conduct would open the village up to extra legal expense and felt complaints should be handled by courts, not the village board.
“I feel it’s really onerous and a false accusation could trigger all kinds of legal expenses and I think that’s the business of the court, that’s not the business of a board of trustees or the public to try a public official,” Reynolds said.
No one specifically mentioned the village employee’s complaints against Gorman during the board’s half-hour discussion of the issue, though the matter clearly hovered overhead. The closest anyone got to mentioning the episode was after the vote, when Sussman referred to it, but not specifically.
“I think we’ve just gone through a period of bad publicity with this board, and I think it’s a shame that we don’t want to insure that we’re protecting ourselves as individuals,” Sussman said, alluding to the party-line vote.
Shevitz responded that the subject coming up now appeared to him to be a political maneuver.
“I think we did go through an unfortunate period, and that’s why I have concerns about the timing of this, and now we’re talking about something that kind of extends the story further,” Shevitz said. “I see this as politics, not policy.”
Sells did not address the timing of the subject’s introduction at the Nov. 7 meeting, but cautioned that the code was something the board needed to address.
“Right now we’re driving around without a spare, and it’s better to have this in place now before we get hit, than trying to pass something like this in a situation where there’s reaction,” Sells said.