Monday, August 9, 2010

Open: Sunlight must shine on secret City Council ethics trials

Sunday, August 8th 2010, 4:00 AM

The City Council Ethics Committee has substantiated an accusation that a Manhattan Council member "poked" an aide in a fit of temper, and called for sanctions. Whether any of this makes sense is beyond knowing.

In total secrecy, the committee investigated the actions of Councilman Ydanis Rodriguez, charged him with misconduct, tried him and recommended that the full Council bounce him as chairman of the Higher Education Committee until he completes anger management counseling.

Speaker Christine Quinn is asking the public, including Rodriguez's constituents, to take on faith that the proceedings were fairly conducted and there was a sound basis for reaching the panel's conclusions. Her request is misplaced.

Like the rest of government, the Council must operate with maximum transparency so voters can assess their representatives' records. It is not for Quinn to choose which Council proceedings will be open and which will be shrouded.

The speaker has a duty to publish clear standards for ethics investigations that establish openness as a fundamental operating principle. She ought to look toward Congress and its handling of the case against Rep. Charlie Rangel.

A subcommittee investigated his affairs. The probe was confidential, as is proper. The panel found grounds for the House ethics committee to try Rangel for alleged violations. That vote brought the charges into the public domain, along with voluminous supporting materials and Rangel's defenses. His trial, should he refuse to settle, will be conducted in full view - and on C-SPAN.

In Rodriguez's case, Council lawyers and an ethics subcommittee inquired into the aide's account that he had forcefully touched her "in an area between her throat and upper chest" in a burst of anger. After closed-door testimony, the panel concluded there was cause to believe the accusation and served Rodriguez with formal charges.

From that moment on, all proceedings should have been public, as Rodriguez had requested.

Quinn says secret proceedings will allow her to protect the identity of Rodriguez's accuser so that, in the future, staffers will not hesitate to complain about a member for fear of having to appear in public. However admirable that sentiment, the higher value is sunlight that lets voters judge whether convictions are fair and prevents investigations from being squelched in the dark.

The Council should follow Congress' example, and Quinn should immediately release the transcripts of all testimony in Rodriguez's case.

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