City officials have rejected a Kingston Times Freedom of Information Act request seeking financial disclosure forms which, under the terms of the city’s new ethics law, must be filled out by elected officials, appointees to city commissions and high-ranking municipal employees.
But five officials who are supposed to report their financial interests under the law say they’ve never been given the forms or asked to fill them out. The discrepancy suggests that a cornerstone of the law, intended to guard against conflicts of interest and cronyism has been ignored more than a year after the bill passed following contentious negotiations between Mayor Shayne Gallo and the Common Council.
“I haven’t [filled out the form] and I’m not aware of anyone else filling one out,” Alderman Matt Dunn (D-Ward 1) wrote in an e-mail this week. “I don’t believe that the forms were distributed.”
The ethics law passed in June 2013 following year-long effort to reconcile competing versions of the legislation drafted by Gallo and Dunn, who are both attorneys. Gallo objected to limits on political activity by department heads and other city employees saying that the language was intended to hamstring his re-election efforts and consolidate power with political party leaders. In the end, a compromise law blending elements of both bills was passed by the council unanimously and signed by Gallo.
Among the non-controversial items in the new law were new financial disclosure requirements. The requirement covers dozens of city officials, including the mayor, members of the Common Council, department heads, members of the planning and zoning boards, members of the city’s ethics board, the Kingston Local Development Corporation and others.
The annual disclosure form appended to the law is a 10-page document. In it, respondents are asked to list a wide range of financial holdings and business relationships. The required data includes positions held in business and political entities, real estate holdings, investments, gifts, income from outside jobs and pensions, deferred compensation and debts in excess of $5,000. Respondents are asked to disclose not only their own interests, but those of spouses and dependant children. Instead of assigning specific dollar amounts to financial interests, respondents are asked to use a letter code ranging from “A” for less than $5,000 to F for $250,000 or more.
The law calls for the form to be filed by all applicable officials within 60 days of taking office or by May 1 each year. Another section of the law charges the mayor with distributing the documents on or before March 1. The disclosure forms, which must be notarized, are kept on file by the city comptroller with copies delivered in sealed envelopes to members of the city’s ethics board and the mayor. Another section of the law requires any city employee or officer to disclose any relationship closer than first cousins with any person seeking a contract or employment with the city or making an application to the department or board that the employee serves on.
On July 7, the Kingston Times submitted a Freedom of Information Act request seeking all financial disclosure forms submitted in accordance with the ethics law. On July 15, City Clerk Carly Williams responded in an e-mail saying that the request had been reviewed and denied. The e-mail stated that the information sought was not subject to the Freedom of Information Law and that releasing it would constitute an “unwarranted invasion of personal privacy.”
That stance seems to contradict a pair of opinions from the New York Committee on Open Government. A government agency under New York’s Department of State, the committee is empowered to issue advisory opinions on issues related to state open meetings and freedom of information laws.
The opinions from 1995 and 1997 involve local ethics laws in the Town of Queensbury and Niagara County. In both instances, Committee on Open Government Executive Director Bob Freeman writes that financial disclosure statements are subject to Freedom of Information Law with two caveats. Freeman wrote that specific business interests could be redacted or withheld from disclosure at the request of the respondent if an ethics board agrees that the information has “no material bearing” on the discharge of their duties. The other exception, Freeman wrote, involved the actual value of assets.