Guest Column: With Town Hall, check conflicts at the door

Riverhead Town Hall (Credit: Barbaraellen Koch)
Riverhead Town Hall (Credit: Barbaraellen Koch)

Last year, as candidates for the Riverhead Town Board, we sounded the warning bell about public officials also serving as high political party officials.

Often, in the rough-and-tumble and prism of a political campaign, issues like this are seen as personal. But as the movie line goes, “It’s not personal … It’s strictly business.” At the heart of the debate over ethics lies a simple question: How do we structure town government in a way that will properly serve the people of Riverhead, provide the greatest transparency to the public and engender the most confidence in Town Hall?

James Madison said it pretty well when he said, “All men having power ought to be mistrusted.”

President Reagan was fond of the phrase, “Trust but verify” and our Founding Fathers gave us a system of “checks and balances.”

The current ethics legislation being considered by our Town Board is flimsy at best. As proposed, the new law would prohibit only Town Board members from becoming party officers.

We believe the law needs to go further to include all elected officials.

Today, we are blessed by the service of Highway Superintendent Gio Woodson; but what if we don’t always have a man with Gio’s sense of integrity? Suppose the next person elected to that office becomes a political party leader? Do we want to worry that some streets will get plowed first or last because they are in a Democratic or a Republican neighborhood? Do we want to run even the slightest risk that highway vendors and suppliers will be chosen because they aid that party leader with contributions at election time? Do we want to set up a system where superintendents have to choose between loyalty to their party position or loyalty to their public office?

Today, we have a good man in Mason Haas, but he won’t always be our assessor. Do we want the next assessor to possibly be seen as experiencing conflict between party loyalty and public duty when deciding on how much tax you’ll pay? Shouldn’t we design a system where there isn’t even the slightest worry, or an iota or shred or notion of a possible conflict of interest, when it comes to how you’ll be taxed?

We’re a small town; we all know each other here. But when you’re creating the very structure of governance, you don’t create a structure to suit any one individual, you build a government for all time and all circumstances. You take steps to eliminate, as best you can, potential conflicts of interest before they occur. The people demand a government that is transparent and accountable. We need to put more government online, not less.

We need to make government more open, not closed, and we need to built an ethical moat around Town Hall so that conflicts of interest will be checked at the door and partisan politics will be kept out of the corridors of 200 Howell Avenue. I believe our Town Board needs to find it within itself to rise above the partisan fray and to enact tough, loophole-free ethics laws. Trust but verify. Checks and balances. It’s not personal, it’s strictly business.

coatesdevitoRiverhead Town residents Anthony Coates and Angela DeVito have both run previously for town offices. Mr. Coates is an investment and public affairs consultant. Ms. DeVito is a longtime workplace safety advocate who also serves as president of the Jamesport-South Jamesport Civic Association.