ITHACA, N.Y.—There are two investigations being conducted into potential ethical breaches committed during the Reimagining Public Safety process, seeming to focus on the actions of former Ithaca Mayor Svante Myrick and how payments were directed to the law enforcement reform’s task force leaders, Eric Rosario and Karen Yearwood.

The Tompkins County Board of Ethics is reviewing the matter, scheduling its next public meeting on July 29, while the City of Ithaca has hired outside counsel to conduct its own internal investigation (more information on the case here and here as well).

With the two investigations playing out behind closed doors, it has been difficult to shake further information loose. Rather than wait until the decision is rendered (or some other smaller development) on July 29, The Ithaca Voice reached out to Prof. John Pelissero, the senior scholar in the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics at Santa Clara University, specializing in government ethics, for his interpretation of the case and his reaction to the allegations presented, as far as has been publicly covered so far.

Overall, Pelissero’s assessment is that the conduct, as we know it so far, is not so damning as to throw out the process, but that it does point to a troubling lack of transparency and government structure problems.

“The thing about applied ethics in the public sector is you can have something that is not illegal, but can still be unethical,” Pelissero said. “Particularly if there’s the perception on the part of the public that something is not being done correctly or appropriately in city government.”

“From an ethical standpoint, it would have been much better for the former mayor to have publicly stated that he intended to compensate the co-leaders because of things he explained later on,” Pelissero said, like Myrick’s justification of the payments because of Rosario and Yearwood were taking time from their careers. “The lack of transparency around that is one of those things that can cause the public to lose trust in their local leaders, and the broader city government. That’s an ethical problem because there’s the perception of something not being done appropriately, and the result of that is to undermine the public confidence and trust in government.”

Pelissero said any tangible impact on public trust likely won’t be felt on the current police reform effort, but it could manifest towards future government initiatives. Whether or not that impact will actually appear or not remains to be seen, but at the very least, it’s risky, he said.

“Transparency is one way to get things out there, so the public knows what’s going on, and doesn’t find out things after the fact that seemingly were not being disclosed,” Pelissero said. “It’s part of what we call ‘virtue ethics.’ There’s virtue in honesty, transparency is a virtue in the public sector. When that appears to be compromised, it can affect confidence in government.”

At the very core of the ethics concerns is that Myrick didn’t bring the allocations before Common Council, either for notification or approval. Viewed negatively, that can be seen as an attempt to hide the payments. Myrick’s explanation, though, is that because the money was under a certain threshold ($30,000), he believed that it was able to be done administratively—in other words, that he could make that spending decision himself without the input of council.

The issue, though, is that figure doesn’t appear to be explicitly laid out in any city code or document. That doesn’t mean that it wasn’t operationally accepted, as Myrick has said, but the lack of a specific policy would cast doubt over the decision to bypass council.

Those types of administrative processes aren’t uncommon or necessarily disallowed, Pelissero said, as a means to increase government efficiency and avoid delays for relatively small spending decisions. But if they’re going to be utilized without being presented publicly, it’s imperative that they be flatly stated to avoid the appearance of wrongdoing. That threshold should be somewhere public: the municipal code, the city charter, an ordinance from Common Council, etc.

Prof. John Pelissero (Photo from Santa Clara University)

“That is fairly common in municipal government, school districts, and county government as well,” Pelissero said. “It’s a way of authorizing, in this case the political chief executive of the city, to discharge certain financial duties of the office without having to go to city council for approval each time.”

Referring to the involvement of the Park Foundation, Pelissero said that it doesn’t much matter in his mind whether Myrick approached Park for money or if Park initiated the funding (Myrick has said that Park approached the city, Park officials have been more vague, but said they were “interested”). But he stated that Myrick’s rationale for paying Rosario and Yearwood would be stronger if the public had known there were other funding sources in play.

“If the city was able to get the money from the foundation or others who support their planning efforts around reimagining the police, why not just say that?” he said. Common Council should have been informed as well. “Just from a good political practice [standpoint], the mayor should have informed the members of the Common Council that here’s how we’re going to make this working group be successful, we got some money that will help compensate the leaders and those that will be playing significant roles, rather than have council members find out about it after the fact as well.”

With the caveat remaining that more information may be revealed at the end of the month, in Pelissero’s opinion the issue here is more about the perception of impropriety rather than the actual conduct that took place, unethical as it may be. That’s what could have been easily avoided, and what could erode public trust.

“One of the common problems that is observed is a lack of understanding around how the perception of something not being done ethically or appropriately can be to the public official’s and the government’s reputation as a whole,” he said. “Given how publicly and politically charged the whole issue of reforming and reimagining police in cities has been, it was doubly important for the city and those responsible for overseeing the process to have ensured that they were doing everything in the best way possible.”

Matt Butler

Matt Butler is the Managing Editor at the Ithaca Voice. He can be reached by email at mbutler@ithacavoice.com