The City of Rochester Board of Ethics has finally issued advisory opinions for several complaints filed by Rochester for All over the past year. The board did not find any violations, even though it acknowledged the conduct occurred in some cases. The board issued recommendations in those cases.
Rochester for All was never contacted by the board to appear at meetings and give testimony or provide additional information.
Here are the findings:
Cedric Alexander’s Book
Rochester for All filed a complaint in December 2017 about the city’s purchase of 100 copies of former deputy mayor Cedric Alexander’s book. We believed it violated the ethics codes forbidding special treatment of any individual and the use of city resources for the profit of another person. The board determined the book’s subject matter of police-community relations and Alexander’s qualifications made it appropriate.
RFA Response: It’s highly unusual for the city to purchase books that are not for use in the library or by city staff. This book was for a giveaway at a special event. It’s not available in the library. It appears to have been purchased for the sole purpose of promoting and rewarding Alexander.
Cedric Alexander Outside Business Activities
Rochester for All filed a complaint in December 2017 about Cedric Alexander’s outside business activities. We gave the board evidence Alexander performed work for other entities on city time, and that a city vendor paid for him to attend a conference. The board determined “insufficient evidence has been presented” and the mayor is the one who should be evaluating his work performance.
RFA Response: It’s apparent the ethics board does not conduct its own investigations to find additional evidence. That places the burden of proof on the complainant, who does not have access to staff and records. We believe we presented a great deal of evidence, including travel records and Alexander’s schedule that made it clear his time at City Hall was rife with conflicts requiring the board’s attention.
Lovely Warren’s Facebook Post and FOIL Archive
Rochester for All filed a complaint in January 2018 about Mayor Lovely Warren’s Facebook post questioning Rachel Barnhart’s mental health for filing a number of open records request. The post also falsely accused Barnhart of harassing and following people close to Warren. The city also issued a press release touting a new FOIL archive that highlighted Barnhart’s FOILs. The board determined this is beyond the scope of its duties to evaluate.
RFA Response: Because we didn’t specify which section of the ethics code this violated, the board chose not to take up the complaint. The board never contacted us to clarify.
Political Activity at City Hall
Rochester for All filed a complaint in February 2018 regarding political activity at City Hall. We presented evidence the city produced advertisements funded by the mayor’s political funds. We also found political funds helped pay for city-produced events. The board determined we provided “insufficient evidence” and what we presented was “de minimus in scope and nature.”
However, the opinion added, “The Board cautions, however, that clear lines should be established between City business and political campaign activities as as not to give rise to allegations of inappropriate conduct.”
The board recommended strengthening employee training regarding political activity, minimizing use of city staff on campaigns and providing mechanisms for city staff to report potential conflicts regarding political campaigns.
RFA Response: The evidence we presented was strong. Even if the board felt the activity was “de minimus” in nature, even one instance is enough to find a violation of the ethics code. This activity is illegal, and simply should not be tolerated. It’s encouraging to see the board issue recommendations to prevent this activity from continuing.
Cedric Alexander’s Vacation Time and Executive Assistant
Rochester for All filed a complaint in July 2018 regarding Alexander’s use of his secretary for personal business. We presented emails directing her to book flights and save records for his outside activities. We also presented evidence the deputy mayor was awarded more vacation time than allowed per city regulations. The board concluded the deputy mayor’s vacation time was in accordance with policy. It found the directives to the secretary were “infrequent” and “no information was available to indicate the Deputy Mayor pressured his assistant to make the personal travel arrangements referenced in the complaint.”
Therefore, the board found no violations.
The board however, added that managers should avoid enlisting staff to conduct personal business on their behalf.
RFA Response: Our calculations showed the deputy mayor exceeded vacation time by 31 hours, even with the ethics board definition. As for directing his assistant to do personal work, the evidence we presented was strong. Even if the board felt the activity was “de minimus” in nature, one instance should have been enough to find a violation of the ethics code. Furthermore, it’s wrong to expect subordinates to say no to their bosses’ requests unless they are “pressured.” It doesn’t appear the board tried to contact Diane Jackson, who was fired shortly after we released our findings. It’s encouraging to see the board issue recommendations to prevent this activity from continuing.
It’s clear the Board of Ethics bends over backward to avoid finding any violations of the Code of Ethics. As has been noted in the past, the Rochester board is beholden to the mayor.
Rochester ethics board is constituted differently from the boards of every other major city in New York State. Some don’t allow all members to belong to one political party. Some forbid city employees and elected officials. Some have a mix of appointments awarded to the mayor, council and judges or law school deans.