Council Approves Ethics Guidelines

BERLIN- The Berlin Ethics Commission will use its first-ever set of guidelines to decide a controversy over a council member’s participation in discussions affecting his type of business.

Last spring, Marge Coyman filed an ethics complaint over Councilmember Troy Purnell’s participation in a discussion of wastewater capacity prices for new development. The complaint was handed over to the Ethics Commission at that point.

“We didn’t hear anything for a long time,” said Mayor Gee Williams.

The Berlin Ethics Commission is rarely called on, with the last question put before that body in March 2008, when then Councilmember Ellen Lang had concerns over her freelance work for a company owned by residents who sometimes come professionally before the town council. Lang was not found to be in violation of the Berlin ethics code.

In July, Ethics Commission chairman Paul Gorman informed the mayor that the commission had held a meeting and concluded that Purnell had violated the town ethics code, according to Williams. However, the commission acknowledged it had called no witnesses, and had not given either side the chance to testify, nor had they consulted the town attorney or asked him to be present.

Gorman, who said he did not want to discuss the situation with the press, did say the commission had not been given any guidelines on handling complaints. Mayor Gee Williams said the ethics committee’s findings were more informal in nature.

“They had a nice talk,” he said. “You can’t have a hearing if you don’t have testimony.”

The commission, until this week, had never had procedures or guidelines to go by in making their decisions.

“I think they did the best they could in trying to guess what they had to do,” said Williams. “I was surprised when this went to them they didn’t tell us, we have no guidelines.”      

Town attorney Dave Gaskill, has since created a list of procedures. The practices accepted this week by the town council outline a straightforward procedure. When complaints, which must be in writing, are submitted, the Ethics Committee will first consider whether the matter has any merit and whether a full hearing should be held before proceeding further.

A copy of the complaint is also forwarded to the subject of the complaint, an action which did not happen in Coyman’s complaint against Purnell. A formal hearing follows within 30 days if the commission determines the complaint has merit.

The new guidelines specifically ensure that the subject of the complaint has his due process rights: the right to timely notification, to be represented by counsel, defend against the accusation, call witnesses, present evidence, and testify personally. During the hearing, both sides may make opening statements, witnesses will be sworn in before testifying or presenting evidence, both sides may cross-examine witnesses, and make closing statements.

The Ethics Commission and the town attorney may also question witnesses. The commission then must render a decision and present a written finding within 30 days of the hearing.

The town Ethics Commission will use Coyman’s complaint against Purnell to implement the new procedures, Williams said, to give both sides a fair opportunity to present their side of the argument. The decision from the summer is not valid.

The Mayor has requested that the Ethics Commission schedule a hearing on Coyman’s complaint and inform the town council of that meeting, as well as holding the meeting at a time when people, including the Berlin town attorney, can attend.

“The whole process needs to be done based on the new guidelines, which replace nothing,” Williams said. “I was shocked. The town’s been around a long time but there was no procedural guidelines for the Ethics Commission.”