The resignation of former Mayor William McNamara from the city ethics commission adds another partisan twist to the sorry state of affairs on a board charged with keeping municipal officials honest.

The Courant and Herald covered McNamara’s move this past week.

Billy Mac, a supporter of the incumbent Mayor and the emcee at Stewart’s inaugurals, derided a decision by the Common Council not to accept a ruling against Ald. Paul Catanzaro for participating in a Council discussion related to work at the Parks and Recreation Department. Republican Ald. Lou Salvio, a prolific filer of official complaints against Democrats, brought the original charge. On the first go around the ethics commission threw out the allegation. But it got a second life as the Herald’s James Craven reports:

A quorum of the commission dismissed the complaint 2-1, but on Dec. 22, commissioner Jill Kemp, a Republican, made a motion to reconsider the dismissal. During a Jan. 21 meeting, the commission heard testimony and added two letters to its investigation. After reviewing the material, Republican commissioners William Dworski, Jill Kemp and Carmelo Rodriguez, along with Democrats Kemp and McNamara, voted unanimously that Catanzaro be reprimanded for two violations.

The reconsideration has brought charges from Democrats that Salvio openly violated the ethics rules himself by disclosing information that is supposed to remain under wraps as part of the ethics process. And then there is the matter of Billy Mac himself. Members of the ethics commission, while they can contribute to political candidates, may not endorse or campaign for a candidate. By all accounts, former Mayor McNamara has been a public supporter of Stewart during his re-election bids.

All of this tit for tat, of course, doesn’t have much to do with grand lists, fiscal prudence, essential services and keeping the city afloat during one of the worst recession’s in anybody’s memory. Come to think of it, it may not have much to do with conflicts of interest or ethics either.

The allegation made against Catanzaro raises again the issue of what elected officials who are connected to the city by reason of employment can and can’t do in their elected capacities. This two-hatted group includes Mayor Stewart (on loan from the fire department), Alderwoman Tonilynn Collins (water department)and Catanzaro
(a rank and filer at parks & rec).

Salvio alleges that Catanzaro’s Council vote to have the city perform a landscaping job instead of a private contractor created a conflict because as an employee of Parks & Rec Catanzaro “would be benefiting himself.” Catanzaro, a city alderman with responsibilities on budget matters, says that he felt obligated to support the city doing the work “to save money.” He went further by saying he would not be involved in doing the work that was estimated as a two-day job with $120 in labor costs. But that’s not Catanzaro’s decision. It would be up to Parks Director Bill DeMaio or a supervisor to assign a worker to do the job, including Catanzaro if they so chose. And Catanzaro should have left well enough alone by excusing himself when the ethics report arrived this month.

The real issue is whether Catanzaro stood to directly gain financially from participating in the city versus private contractor vote. Did Salvio find a smoking gun? Was there a documented request by Catanzaro to his bosses that he wanted the work for himself and/or his union? The answer appears to be no, lending credence to the claim made by North-Oak Street neighborhood activist Rich Marzi at a February Council meeting that Salvio is engaging in “a fishing expedition.” Salvio admitted as much at a January 21st ethics hearing on the matter by saying he “now believes Catanzaro would not have benefited directly as a result of his actions,” according to a Herald story in the hearing.

This Salvio complaint follows a string of other complaints against Democratic members of the Common Council since Mayor Stewart, using his authority under a new charter, appointed a new ethics commission in 2004 at the start of his administration. A January 2004 Herald story “Stewart picks ethics panel” by Penny Riordan points to a Republican strategy of complaints aimed at Democratic aldermen and unionized city employees from the earliest days of Stewart’s administration. Rather than take a bipartisan approach to appointments, Stewart took absolute control. Not surprisingly, the Stewart-appointed commission has been unanimous in casting aspersions against Democratic aldermen.

The Commission also turned aside a complaint early on that, as an elected mayor connected to the city fire department, Stewart was required to file a statement with the ethics board so he could carry out his elected duties while on leave from regular city employment. Stewart never filed a statement despite specific requirements for a mayor that are set forth in the code of ethics.

Another complaint that alleged Stewart intervened in fire department personnel matters was also rejected by the ethics panel. Subsequently, Stewart and the city have lost labor board and court rulings by denying Firefighter Ed Preece a promotion despite Preece’ high exam scores. Preece was replaced by lower scoring candidates connected to the Mayor. And the case has cost the city a chunk of change for nothing in return.

If nothing else the controversies at the ethics board during the Stewart years have undermined a Commission that needs to be set up above the political frays that are an inevitable part of the process.

There are well-intended arguments that city employees should not be allowed to run for municipal offices as is the case with the state and state legislators. But that is not the case now. Stewart, Catanzaro and Collins were elected by voters with policy making and budget roles. They can and should recuse themselves if they or family members stands to directly benefit from their actions. Otherwise, let them govern.

By applying that standard, the latest complaint by Salvio has all the earmarks of a partisan and spontaneous attack on a fellow council member. Salvio’s actions have been aided and abetted by Mayor Stewart who keeps the make up and structure of the local ethics board under his thumb. He can go to work at City Hall knowing that he and members of his administration are above any ethics problems because he has the votes to make it so.

Billy Mac is right about one thing: it’s a waste of time to serve on the current ethics commission. The situation, however, leaves the city without a process to handle the real conflicts of interest that may be lurking at City Hall.