Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake says she will neither sign nor veto legislation to loosen conflict-of-interest restrictions that have sometimes prevented City Council members from voting on bills.
The legislation — sought by Council President Bernard C. "Jack" Young — has been approved by the council, and it is expected to become law without the mayor's signature.
The bill, sponsored by Young, would lift some ethics restrictions to allow him to vote on matters involving city agencies where his family members work. The bill is vehemently opposed by the city's ethics board, which calls it "dangerous" and asked Rawlings-Blake to veto it.
The legislation leaves an "overbroad, even dangerous, exception to an essential, decades-old requirement of the Ethics Code," ethics board chairwoman Linda B. "Lu" Pierson wrote in a letter objecting to the bill.
Young's staff says he abstains from about 20 percent of votes before the Board of Estimates, the city's spending panel, because he has several family members who work in city government. Current ethics law prohibits him from voting on any matter involving their agencies.
According to his most recent disclosure form, Young has a daughter who is a teacher in a Head Start program; a brother who is a laborer working for the Department of Public Works; a sister who works as a customer service representative in the Mayor's Office of Information Technology; and a brother who works in human resources in the city housing department.
Young said his daughter and sister no longer work in city government.
Lester Davis, Young's spokesman, said the council president has been concerned for years that the ethics law is too restrictive. He said the issue became a particular concern last year when the Board of Estimates voted to approve a 9 percent increase in water and sewage bills. Young wanted to vote against the measure, but was prevented from doing so because of his brother's low-ranking position.
"There's no ethical reason he should not be able to vote on those matters," Davis said. "You have a situation where an individual is handicapped from fully representing his constituents."
City politicians are prevented from voting on matters involving "business entities," including city agencies, in which family members hold positions. Young's legislation in effect says that city agencies should not be considered "business entities."
But the ethics board says the language is too broad. Pierson said the bill draws no distinction between situations like Young's, where his family members are relatively low-level employees, and situations "where the potential conflict or appearance of conflict is quite real."
The City Council unanimously passed the bill without discussion in February. Councilwoman Rochelle "Rikki" Spector said she initially had objections to the bill, but agreed to vote for it.
"I questioned the law department," Spector said. "I was told it was legal but not ethical."
Councilman James B. Kraft, whose committee heard testimony on the bill, said he was offended by the ethics board's letter.
"They weren't even present at the hearing on the bill," he said. "The letter was so insulting. They've taken this self-righteous stance and they didn't even bother to testify or come to the hearing."
The mayor said the legislation makes the city's law the same as the state's law. "While I understand the intent of the legislation, I also have to balance the concerns of the ethics board," Rawlings-Blake said.
Ian Brennan, her spokesman, said the mayor is hopeful the board and the council can resolve their differences. He said the board backed an earlier version of the bill, but it and Rawlings-Blake feel the measure was amended to be too broad.
Davis said Young respects the board's opinion, but disagrees. "There are already rules that exist against nepotism," he said. "This is a case of honest minds differing."
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