Friday, October 28, 2011

Pick Thy Neighbor

Assembly Minority Leader Brian Kolb announced that he has sent the name of his nominee to the Joint Commission on Public Ethics (JCOPE) to the Governor’s office.

Hmm. I suppose I should be encouraged that there is a little movement toward getting a new state ethics panel up and running, but I have this there-they-go-again feeling.  
Why?  It’s something that Kolb said in commenting on his appointment. He didn’t give the individual’s name, but he described him simply has an attorney.  "We chose a gentleman who is a lawyer because we feel it would be helpful to know the law while serving in that role," Kolb said.

More lawyers?!? Haven’t they learned anything from the fiasco of the last four years?  A panel populated with lawyers with ties to elected officials, to me, runs the risk of re-establishing the dynamic that undermined the Public Integrity Commission.   

To be sure, being an attorney doesn’t mean you will be a bad commissioner. In fact, there have been some very good commissioners who were attorneys. Peter Moschetti and George Carpinello come to mind. They were fair people.

What worries me is the mindset expressed by Mr. Kolb, that only a lawyer can do the job. Really? Why?  The commission is suppose to act like a jury, at least that’s what Jeremy Creelan told me when we discussed the new legislation.   A jury of lawyers, to me, and, yeah, I’m a lawyer, is a nightmare.

Anyone observing the last integrity commission or serving on it would have to admit that it was at best dysfunctional and it was comprised overwhelmingly of lawyers.  I think we need a state ethics panel composed of people from a broad cross section of society who are blessed with common sense. Professional staff can advise them about the law, if needed. (I’ll have another post on how to select professional in another blog entry.)

OK, now. I can sense what some people are thinking about my suggestion. “Ordinary citizens?  Well, it’s a nice idea, but it’s easier said than done.”

Actually, I don’t think so. There’s an easy way to find qualified non-lawyers who might be willing to serve. Walk down your street and ring a doorbell.
I say that literally. If you rang doorbells on my street you’d find a landscaper, a state retiree, a small business owner and a grandmother – any one of whom, I firmly believe, would make a fine commissioner because they are all decent and smart people who’d try to do the right thing

My message to Mr. Kolb, the other leaders and the Governor is: Pick your neighbor, not some wired lawyer your staff has suggested will “know the law.”

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