Saturday, May 30, 2009

Salisbury: Local Blogger Files Ethics Complaint on Council

The Salisbury Ethics Commission has scheduled a hearing for Wednesday after a city resident and blogger filed a complaint against two councilwomen alleging they violated municipal code.

Jonathan Taylor, a 36-year-old blogger known for his Web site, The Salisbury Grinch, sent the complaint to City Administrator John Pick on Tuesday after the City Council voted on next year's budget.

The complaint states Councilwoman Terry Cohen violated the code when she voted on the budget, which includes funds for health insurance for council members. The complaint also names Councilwoman Debbie Campbell, who Taylor states advocated for the health insurance benefits during work sessions.

Campbell did not vote on the budget. She was ill, and therefore absent from the meeting, she said.

"It's a part-time job," Taylor said in an interview. "They don't need full-time benefits."

The complaint filed by Taylor references the conflict of interest section of the municipal code, which prohibits officials from participating in any "decision-making process" that would have a direct financial impact on them and prohibits them from using their position for their own or another's benefit.

Cohen and Campbell are not the only council members receiving health benefits. A third councilwoman, Shanie Shields, was not named in the complaint.

Taylor said he did not name Shields because she has publicly stated that she plans to discontinue her health insurance with the city.

Shields said she was told she had to wait for the open enrollment period, late summer or early fall, to cancel the insurance.

Taylor's complaint marks the second complaint to the Ethics Commission -- a panel of five residents appointed by the mayor and approved by the council -- regarding health benefits for city employees.

Shields asked the commission to review the council's request to vote on reinstating health benefits on May 20, but rescinded the request the following day.

"I just wanted to move forward with the budget because we had other pressing issues," Shields said.

Tensions over the more recent health insurance debate smoldered when the $27,000 allotment for the benefits for the three councilwomen were not included in former mayor Barrie Parsons Tilghman's proposed 2010 budget, which she submitted before leaving office.

Funds to cover the council members' insurance made its way back into the budget by way of a $21,429 budget amendment before the vote Tuesday.

When Mayor Jim Ireton added the insurance money back into the budget, he corrected what Cohen called an "error" by Tilghman. Cohen said Tilghman did not have the authority to remove the funds without a vote by the council.

"The mayor doesn't have the authority to make policy," Cohen said. "That's what the council does. (The mayor's) job is to administer policy."

Tilghman could not be reached for comment Friday evening.

The violations Taylor references in his complaint are not applicable, Cohen said, saying, technically, she was merely voting on next year's operating budget and not specifically for the restoration of health insurance benefits.

"I didn't vote to change the policy," Cohen said. "All (I) did was vote on the budget. I voted on something that, by policy, I was legally entitled to. There's nothing unethical about voting on the budget."

Some council members said they were unclear on whether the municipal code was violated. Council President Louise Smith said she would like to set up an ad hoc committee to study the issue. Discussion about a potential committee to review the issue is tentatively scheduled for a council work session July 6.


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