OLD LYME — The chairwoman of the Ethics Commission is requesting funding to hire independent legal counsel to rewrite the town’s ethics code.
Jane Cable asked the Board of Selectmen last week to increase the commission’s budget from $1,900 to $7,500 to cover legal costs.
“The Ethics Commission, when I joined, was totally dysfunctional, because the code doesn’t give directions for a well-functioning Ethics Commission,” said Cable, who became chairwoman in December. “It needs more than minor revisions.”
Cable, an attorney, said the small amount of money in the budget makes her feel as though she is expected to “donate unpaid legal services” to the commission to revise the code. She said the code needs expensive revision as well as some form of representation at town hall.
“We don’t even have a mailbox, let alone anybody to do administrative work,” she said. “That falls on me, too.”
First Selectman Timothy Griswold suggested other members of the commission could help her with the work, but Cable said she could not schedule meetings until the code is revised.
“Three of the members are brand new and that includes me. There was a wholesale resignation or dropout from the commission,” she said.
Cable said a complaint was lodged with the commission, but there has not been a fully appointed body to hear it — until now.
Another flaw in the code, Cable said, is that the commission does not report to anyone and it appoints its own members.
“Right now, I think the Ethics Commission is in serious disarray, and it’s going to take more than $1,900 to fix it,” she said, later pointing out they have to make a budget of $25 last until July. “I made a modest request of $7,500. If it turns out to be overreach, we’ll give the money back.”
Cable also said the commission should report to the Board of Selectman.
Griswold said the Ethics Commission, which documents on the town’s website say was created in 2008, was intended to be independent, “not under the thumb of the selectman.”
Cable said she was looking for the selectmen’s support, and has requested to be on the Board of Finance’s agenda for its March meeting. She told Griswold she could quickly assemble a detailed budget.
“Frankly, most of this is going to be legal fees,” she said. “I think we need a fresh set of legal eyes, belonging to people who didn’t draft the code and its amendments.”
Selectwoman Mary Jo Nosal thanked Cable for raising these concerns, and said it makes sense to work with a professional who examines municipal code.
“It seems to me, anyway, that the budget is insufficient to allow what needs to be done to make the commission run efficiently and serve this town,” she said.
Cable said the people who drafted the original code did not consider that Old Lyme is a small, interconnected town.
“The code has to account for that,” she said. “We all know each other. We’ve all worked together. The code ... it’s not subtle enough to account for that.”
Griswold said the legal funding could be considered a capital project, not an operating expense, so the commission budget would not balloon in the future.
“I would say that the past isn’t a good prediction of the future, but I don’t think there were very many cases over the years,” he said. “So I don’t think it would be necessary to put oodles of money for clerical and legal.”