Ethics Comm. Rules On Berlin Councilwoman

BERLIN – Berlin Councilwoman Ellen
Lang cannot vote on issues brought before the town council by attorney Joe
Moore on his own behalf, the Berlin Ethics Commission has ruled, but is not restricted
from participating in votes or discussions on items brought by the attorney on
behalf of clients.

“When the attorney is
representing a client, we view the attorney as an extension of the client,”
Ethics Commission Chair Jim Hoppa said. “We don’t view that as she has to
recuse herself there.”

Lang said she anticipated the
Ethics Commission would find no problem.

“I think it was the right
opinion,” Lang said. “I’ve always felt that there was no conflict of interest
of appearance of conflict of interest.”

The Ethics Commission has
concluded that Lang must recuse herself from discussing and voting on matters
presented to the council by anyone employing her as a freelance bookkeeper,
which includes Moore,
when they are before the town council on their own business.

Moore co-owns OC Law Office Holding
Company, LLC, a limited liability company owned by three lawyers. A
self-employed bookkeeper, Lang receives a salary from the holding company,
which is one of several clients, for bookkeeping services. She emphasized in
February that she has no financial interest in the company.

While waiting for an opinion
from the Ethics Commission, Lang has twice recused herself from votes on the
Davis Farm text amendment, in February and last week, as Moore represents property owners Tom Ruark
and Monogram builders, saying she wanted to wait on the result of the Ethics
Commission meeting.

Concern over the appearance of
bias or wrongdoing led her to step back from those votes, though Lang feels she
has done nothing wrong. She sought the ethics opinion as a precaution, she has
said.

“I wanted that opinion out in
the public,” Lang said. “My name, my reputation is very important to me. When
you’re a bookkeeper, you handle other people’s money. You can’t afford to have
any conversation out there that has even the slightest question.”

Hoppa stressed there had been no
conflict of interest charge filed against Lang.

“One of the roles of the board
is to issue advisory opinions. That’s all this was, an advisory opinion,” said
Hoppa.

The opinion, signed by Hoppa and
member Reverend Michael Moyer, reads, “In our opinion there is no conflict of
interest or appearance of conflict of interest by Council member Lang
participating in discussion and voting on issues presented by any attorney
representing a client before the Berlin Town Council.”

The opinion continues, “However,
when any attorney employing Councilmember Lang represents himself or his
business before the Berlin Town Council, then she must recuse to avoid even the
appearance of a conflict of interest.”

Lang raised the question in

mid-February after some constituents expressed concerns over her connection to Moore’s company. She then

announced that she would seek the opinion of the Berlin Ethics Commission.

“We had her appear in front of
the board so we could have a question and answer session and after that she was
excused and we debated the issue,” Hoppa said.

The board relied particularly on
chapter 6-3(D) of the town code for their decision. Section 6-3(D) reads, “Berlin officials and
employees who are subject to this chapter shall not: D. Hold any outside
employment relationship that would impair their impartiality or independence of
judgment.”

The decision was not difficult
to reach, Hoppa said.

“I think we have to commend her
for coming forth and asking for an opinion,” Hoppa said. “Some people wouldn’t
and would just sit on it. She was upfront.”

 

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