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Town of Wellsville ethics complaint moves on after special town meeting

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By JOHN ANDERSON

After meetings, special meetings, an ethics board and town attorney meetings that took place over nearly two months, and ethics complaint has turned out to be an employee handbook violation.

The Town of Wellsville held a 30-minute executive session Wednesday night to go over findings from the Town of Wellsville Ethics Committee.

After a brief statement from the ethics board, the matter was handed back to the board as a “violation to the employee handbook” as it was not an ethics violation. Details and names of the employee or employees were not given.

Town board members Patricia Graves and Jesse Case, who were appointed to the ethics committee by Wellsville Town Supervisor Shad Alsworth, will now decide if there will be disciplinary action for violating the employee handbook.

Highlights from the results of the ethics committee findings as presented to the Wellsville Town Board Wednesday night.

Town Board member Mike Miller, who is not on the ethics committee, said he was confident in the way the issue was handled.

“I don’t expect details (from the ethics committee) because I’m not involved, but it’s my duty to know if there is any danger or legal action to the town and the taxpayers,” Miller said after the meeting. “And I do not feel there is any imminent thing like that.”

On Nov. 18, the town announced a need for an emergency special meeting on Nov. 23 to appoint a member to the ethics committee. Alsworth appointed Case and Graves to the committee on Nov. 23.

On Dec. 15, the ethics committee met in executive session at Town Attorney Mike Finn’s office. The executive session was “to discuss a personnel matter that could involve employee discipline and or criminal prosecution,” Finn said at the time. They met for two hours behind closed doors.

Wednesday night, Graves made a motion to go into executive session, “For a matter relating to the employment history of a particular person or persons and possibly disciplinary action that may need to be taken.”

The Wellsville Sun disputed the need for an executive session as nothing relating to the complaint received by the ethics committee was discussed. Names were not brought up as the executive session was just to go over next-step protocol. 

The Wellsville Sun reporter said, “Everything that was said that would be in executive session, wasn’t. At some point did you guys say ‘hey, we need to come out of this and go into public session?’ Because it wasn’t?”

Alsworth said, “We didn’t discuss any particulars. Graves then repeated Alsworth, “We didn’t discuss any particulars. According to our town employee handbook there is disciplinary action that could be taken.”

The reporter asked, “But there is not going to be any disciplinary action taken?”

Alsworth said, “That’s not necessarily true. We have a committee that handles these things. They operate separately from the town board. If they feel there is something that has to be addressed, that committee will act in that fashion. A committee comprised by Mrs. Graves and Mr. Case that will handle, basically, HR issues and if something has to be handled, they will handle it … I don’t know if that committee has anything to work on or not, I’m not privy to that information.”

Miller said of the executive session, “I don’t think it was communicated very well and there were sometimes it could have been in a public session. But it was above-board. There is, as Shad said, a sub-committee within the board that handles questions and the ethics committee had some recommendations. How they are supposed to act was from bylaws written in 1970 or 1972? They needed more guidance about what they are supposed to or can do.”

Miller said he expects the town attorney to find updated ethics committee bylaws used by other towns and the Town of Wellsville would choose an updated model.

Miller said the issue is not being swept under a rug and both Miller and Alsworth said they were confident the town did not violate executive session rules because they went over conversations that were private with the town attorney.

The Wellsville Sun does not believe a discussion with an attorney over procedure that does not mention names, litigation, discipline or removal should be part of executive session. Christen L Smith, a senior attorney for the New York State Committee on Open Government, told the Wellsville Sun, “The mere fact they are talking about ethics issues is not a reason to go into executive session. It has to be more specific than that. You can’t resuscitate the statutory language.”

Town of Wellsville Ethics Committee Chairman Ron Lanphier was asked by the board to join them in the executive session. The clerk of the board did not attend and the town attorney was not present. The public, which comprised of eight members, stayed in the airport hangar at the Wellsville Municipal Airport as the board went into another town office to meet.

Lanphier was asked to read a statement after the executive session.

“After reading on some concerns that were brought to the ethics committee, the ethics committee found the concerns led to a violation of the employee handbook and would be best handled under the employee discipline policy established in the handbook,” Lanphier read from a statement. “It did not rise to an ethical committee violation at this time.”

Alsworth then thanked the committee and went over the next steps.

“I’d like to thank the ethics committee for the job they did. I believe it’s been a unanimous consent over the next month or two, the ethics committee and Mr. Finn will work in conjunction making updates to the town law,”Alsworth said.

Graves added, “Yes, the town laws were put in place in 1970 and should be reviewed and updated to any new standards that should be in place. And spell out a few proper procedures, things like that, a little more defined.”

Alsworth then told Lanphier, “On behalf of the ethics committee, if you could go back to them and thank them for their service. You guys don’t get paid for that and you had to expend a fair amount of time for that and the town board thanks you for your service.”

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