I once served on the Bio-medical Ethics Board of one of the largest hospitals in the state where I lived. As the only community member in a group otherwise made up of hospital or medical corporation employees, I initially thought I was just the token outsider and layperson in a room full of doctors, researchers, and corporate attorneys. Then I came to realize how important my role was as someone completely unfettered by the politics of profession and employment.
All of this came back to me when I read the unusually lengthy expose in the Finger Lakes Times (March 13, 2021 Weekend Edition) on the debate over City Council’s Ethics Board. Any group tasked with evaluating the policies and behavior of another group, that itself has become politicized, is no longer ethical. Ethics must be parsed with a clear and agreed upon discernment process because the world we live in is rarely absolute and unequivocal. That means the neutrality of the people doing the discernment must be beyond reproach in order for their decisions to carry credibility.
For example, Governor Cuomo initially appointed someone with whom he had a close political connection to investigate the accusations against him. That effort in and of itself was unethical. More recently, Larry Schwartz, Cuomo’s vaccine czar, called Democrat county chairs to “gauge their support” for the governor. That was an abuse of power since Schwartz controls essential and even life saving resources each county needs. Democrats who objected to Trump turning the Department of Justice into his own personal law firm through Attorney General William Barr, must now criticize similarly objectionable actions by New York’s Governor?
I don’t know who all the people are on City Council’s Ethics Board but it seems clear from the news coverage, and the variety of comments by people on all sides quoted in that column, that the Ethics Board has lost credibility as a neutral discernment body. Whether this is a result of their own agency or circumstances beyond their control, if their credibility as neutral agents cannot be restored then the only ethical next step is for them to resign and have a new set of members impaneled. I do not say this as someone with a dog in the fight, though like many people in Geneva, I know at least one person involved.
A bitterly divided City Council with a relentless culture of win-lose politics rather than consensus oriented win-win strategies, needs an especially strong and neutral Ethics Board to protect all of us from the ugliness that is likely to emerge. I do not know the structure of the Ethics Board but it would seem preferable that someone other than City Council itself appoint those board members – that way their tenure is not controlled by the very people whose actions they are asked to evaluate.
The original make-up of the Ethics Board – limited to an attorney, member of the clergy, and someone with human resources or ethics training – has a much better chance of rendering a discernment that has the credibility of neutrality. Those responsible for Ethics Board oversight, if serious about its role and efficacy, would benefit all of us by seriously considering re-constituting its membership.