By ANDREW NEAL
In response to the corruption that has plagued its reputation, the Macomb Township board of trustees held a special meeting last Wednesday to discuss a new ethics ordinance.
The action stems from the seat that still sits empty at every board meeting. Trustee Dino Bucci was indicted in November 2017 on federal corruption charges including bribery, fraud, and extortion. He has not shown up to a board meeting since the indictment.
Former trustee Clifford Freitas was sentenced to 20 months in prison in July for taking $42,000 in bribes from Chuck Rizzo, garbage collector extraordinaire who was sentenced to five and a half years for his role in doling out cash to public officials. During Freitas’ sentencing hearing, his attorney referred to his actions as “the Macomb Township way.”
Late last year, Trustee Tim Bussineau brought up the idea of creating an ethics committee, and in March, each board member selected one resident to serve on the committee’s board – six in total, since Bucci, well, you know.
Jim Gelios was named chairman by the newly-formed committee, which includes Richard Maierle, Tom Sokol, Stephen Ferrari, Robert Montilla, and Richard Paul.
The committee held 10 public meetings from March to September and consulted other Michigan ethics committees for guidance. According to Gelios, the proposed ordinance is “based on prevention rather than punitive action.”
At Wednesday’s meeting, Gelios introduced the ordinance draft, which outlines ethical standards, and recommended the board create a permanent ethics committee to investigate complaints and render advisory opinions.
“The committee felt that since board members and township attorney will ultimately review all these documents, we did not seek funds from the board of trustees for an independent attorney review,” Gelios said. “It is our belief that the ethics ordinance draft is a fine example of an ethics ordinance and we look forward to having this enacted for the betterment of the community.”
Treasurer Karen Goodhue asked Gelios to clarify the punitive aspects of the ordinance, and what repercussions would be faced if there was an ethics violation.
“I mean, nobody’s going to prison for 20 years for violating this ordinance, but in all the ordinances we looked at, they all had some type of penalty in there,” said Gelios. “And I think the board would agree, even with the county enforcement when they went against Tony Marrocco, he only got a hundred dollar fine. It’s not the money, it’s more, to me, the shame of it.”
Gelios expressed the committee’s willingness to work with the board and the township attorney after they review the ordinance to discuss any changes they might suggest.
“The spirit of this (ordinance) is to prevent that empty chair,” trustee Bussineau said, adding that he supports the enforcement efforts in the policy.
Trustee Nevers said she consulted a close friend who is involved in politics about the ordinance draft. The anonymous friend argued that it’s hard to make an ethics ordinance “fair” in the sense that if the ethics board supports a sanction, they may move swiftly to punish, as opposed to a sanction they disagree with in which they may “slow walk it.”
“He thinks an ordinance would be good if that could be fixed,” Nevers said.
Her friend also questioned the likelihood of finding three people willing and able to serve on the board and not be compensated. Ethics committee member Richard Paul disagreed with Nevers’ friend, saying that he himself has no connection to the board and was happy to serve on the committee unpaid.
Treasurer Goodhue had questions related to some of the proposed forms and the way in which in the ordinance packet was presented to the board. Committee representatives again expressed a ‘work-in-progress’ approach to making adjustments based on feedback.
Clerk Pozzi questioned specific language in the draft that referenced keeping ethics complaints confidential and whether or not they could be requested by the public through the Freedom of Information Act. The committee agreed to research it further and consult neighboring towns on their protocol.
Pozzi then sought clarification on conflict of interest issues. Supervisor Dunn also questioned whether or not the committee could operate in a confidential manner, considering their need to comply with the Open Meetings Act.
On the subject of ethics, Trustee Krzeminski brought up the notion that board members should not attend township meetings they are not a part of (like planning and zoning) because it could intimidate the members sitting on those committees. Township attorney Esordi agreed and referenced a precedent which he says is why most municipal attorneys recommend board members not attend other public meetings.
Trustee Bussineau appeared surprised by the notion and recommended revisiting the discussion at another time. “I think something I heard at (MTA) training conflicts with this,” he said. “’Probably shouldn’t’ is different than ‘legally can’t.’”
Township Attorney Esordi suggested changes to the way the ethics ordinance was currently drafted in order to avoid duplicative work and taking any potential civil infractions to court.
Supervisor Dunn ended the special meeting by suggesting the board take 30 days to digest the ordinance draft, allow an attorney to review it for legality, and recommend any changes to the ethics committee.
“We have our homework,” Supervisor Dunn said.