It may be hard to codify a set of ethics, but it’s impossible to follow one otherwise

Something can be legal but not ethical.

Legal standards in our nation are based on laws created by elected representatives, signed by elected executive leaders, and interpreted by courts. Ethical standards are based on human principles of right and wrong.

Laws apply to all members of our society and are enforceable. Ethical standards — what is considered good or bad, moral or immoral — can vary depending on what individuals or groups hold certain values. Ethics are enforceable only if a particular body — say, a professional organization — has set certain standards and created a means, like a hearing board, to interpret and uphold those standards.

For example, a doctor could lose his license to practice, following a board hearing for an ethical violation that was not against the law.

We’re focusing this week on the difference between legal and ethical constraints because of our front page story on the resignation of a library trustee. Our Guilderland reporter, Elizabeth Floyd Mair, has written at length about all sides of the situation.

In brief, Guilderland library trustee Michael Marcantonio resigned after a fellow trustee, Barry Nelson, accused him at a library board meeting, when Marcantonio was not present, of a “violation of the code of ethics” and a “conflict of interest.”

Marcantonio’s wife works for the library and, as a trustee, Marcantonio was involved in contract negotiations with the union for library staff. 

Marcantonio announced his resignation at a subsequent board meeting, saying that he had signed up to represent the community in the spring of 2018 for “what I consider to be an oasis on Western Avenue, the Guilderland Public Library.” He had a strong passion to assist with the expansion-and-renovation project, he said, and to represent the library’s great employees, and encourage new and different programs and events the library could offer. 

“I did not sign up for the constant wrongful accusations from trustee Barry Nelson, of which I can now feel I believe I was bullied,” he said.

We commend Marcantonio for his work on the board, which is an unpaid post. We believe he did a lot of good for the library and that he sincerely meant in all matters to do what was best for the library. We wish that he hadn’t resigned.

We are familiar with Barry Nelson because, for years, he has left frequent messages on our newspaper’s answering machine. He is persistent in telling us any time he believes we have a fact wrong or haven’t covered something fairly.

And, yes, it can feel like bullying. But, we always check into whatever it is Nelson is commenting on, and often, he is right.

In this case, we believe he was right: There was a breach in ethics.

Mind you, there was no legal conflict of interest. The library’s attorney, Kristine A. Lanchantin, had informed the board, through a statement read by its president: “A trustee who is the spouse of a library employee does not have a conflict of interest and can vote on anything regarding union contract negotiation. He or she can and probably should recuse themselves from votes that affect their spouse, but in no way, shape, or form have to.”

That last sentence points up the difference between law and ethics.

While the lawyer advised — guided by case law — that Marcantonio did not have to recuse himself, she, at the same time in the same sentence, said he “can and probably should” recuse himself.

Therein lies the ethical dilemma.

To its credit, the Guilderland Public Library has adopted a code of ethics. The library’s code is clear that trustees must publicly disclose, in writing, any interests they or a spouse may have in matters or resolutions before the board, including “any … actual or proposed contract.”

The code also states, “It is incumbent upon any officer to disqualify himself/herself immediately whenever the appearance of or a conflict exists.”

An independent library ethics board would have been helpful here. Marcantonio could have asked that board whether he could negotiate the contract under the specific facts of the case.

Being an honorable man who cares deeply about the library, Marcantonio, we feel sure, would have followed the ethics board’s advice.

We urge all of our municipal boards to learn from this.

We believe most of our elected leaders, whether unpaid as on the school and library boards or paid as on the town and village boards, have the best interest of the people they serve at heart. They also control large amounts of public funds.

Each of these boards should, as the Guilderland Public Library Board of Trustees did, draft a code of ethics.

That is a first, necessary step. It is a way to set down in writing the standards for right and wrong that the board endorses and will live by. Such a code is a way to keep public trust by making the board’s values transparent and by holding board members accountable.

The next step is essential. Each of these boards should appoint an ethics board to advise members as needed. These boards need not serve solely a “gotcha” function.

No. Rather, ethics boards should work closely with elected boards to educate them and advise them when needed.

In this way, the public can rest assured that its money is in good hands. But, more than that, it can trust that the people elected to serve are literally on the same page when it comes to doing right.

“Ethics” comes from the Greek word for “moral nature” or “character.” Sometimes following the letter of the law is not enough; the spirit of the law matters, too. This is evident in the dissenting opinion in the very case the library lawyer cited.

The state’s highest court heard the case, Settine v. County of Suffolk, in 1985, and was split, 4 to 3, in its decision. “I am at a loss,” wrote Judge Richard Simons in the dissenting opinion, “to know why the courts should construe the section broadly and condone a practice cynically indifferent to the public interest.”

If our boards develop meaningful codes of ethics and set up ethics boards to guide them, the character of our communities will be sterling.

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