The leader of the Common Council’s Democratic majority said that he’s open to compromise on a controversial ethics law that Mayor Shayne Gallo claims was designed to keep political power in the hands of political party elites. But Tom Hoffay (D-Ward 2) also said he plans to stand his ground on provisions in the law intended to keep party politics out of City Hall.

The dispute between Gallo and members of the council has been brewing since May, when both sides introduced competing versions of legislation to beef up ethical standards for elected officials and city workers. Both versions contain financial disclosure provisions which require elected officials and high-ranking city employees to reveal their own and close family members’ ownership of property, stocks and other financial interests. Both laws also bar city officials from holding an ownership stake in businesses which have contracts with the city and establish an ethics board to oversee enforcement of the provisions.

But the law drafted by Alderman Matt Dunn (D-Ward 1) and backed by Hoffay goes further. It would bar the mayor and department heads from holding positions in any political party or soliciting subordinates for campaign contributions for anyone running for a city office. Dunn’s bill would also prevent the city from doing business with any person or company who has made recent donations to a political campaign for city office.

Gallo: It’s unconstitutional

Gallo has blasted the restrictions of fundraising and political activity by the mayor and department heads and limits on contributions by city contractors as a direct attack on his administration. He has vowed to veto the legislation unless they are removed. According to Gallo, a former assistant corporation counsel who ran without the backing of the city’s Democratic Committee, the law is unconstitutional. Gallo said that Dunn’s legislation would, for example, bar Common Council President and plumber James Noble from seeking a plumbing license from the city and force Alderwoman Maryanne Mills to choose between her elected office and her job at United Health Care which administers the city’s health insurance plan. Gallo said that the provisions would also hamstring fundraising efforts by any candidate who did not enjoy the support of “party elites.”

“There isn’t any compromise on the political issues,” said Gallo, who noted that his legislation is modeled onUlsterCounty’s ethics law. “It’s a non-starter.”

Hoffay said that he agreed that some of the restrictions on political activity were too stringent. In particular, Hoffay said, the ban on the mayor holding party office could be removed and the restrictions on the city doing business with anyone who has contributed to a campaign eased. But Hoffay added that prohibitions on the mayor and department heads seeking contributions from city employees and the ban on department heads holding party positions should remain in the legislation. Hoffay said allowing department heads to hold political party posts could create the appearance of conflict when, for example, a resident active in Republican Party politics seeks an assessment reduction from an assessor who also happens to be a Democratic district leader.

Keep roles clear, says Hoffay

“There has to be a clear delineation between your role as a government employee and your role in a political party,” said Hoffay, a former Ulster County Democratic Committee chairman who said that he was required to give up that post before he took a job with the state Attorney General’s Office. “If I’m not enrolled in a party, or I’m in an opposing party I shouldn’t have to worry that I won’t get a fair shake in dealing with that office.

Both sides may still come to an agreement. Gallo said Corporation Counsel Andrew Zweben planned to sit down with Dunn to iron out differences in the legislation and hopefully come up with a single bill acceptable to both sides. Dunn said that there was enough common ground in both pieces of legislation that he was confident a compromise could be worked out.

“At the end of the day,” said Dunn, “everybody wants to take a step forward to raise the bar on what we expect of our public officials.”

Slideshow image: Alderman Tom Hoffay and Mayor Shayne Gallo. (Photos by Dan Barton)