Mount Vernon's Ethics Board re-emerged from oblivion two years ago, with City Council members and others heralding its return as a way to hold public officials accountable for ethical violations or conflicts of interest.
Since then, however, the board -- which only recently gained a full contingent of five members -- has done little besides update ethics policies and cajole officials into filing their annual financial disclosures on time.
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Recently, the panel of citizen volunteers has been bombarded by a flurry of alleged ethical violations involving Mayor Ernie Davis and top city officials, which has led some to suggest that the board might be getting in over its head.
"These are well-intentioned, ethically sound people, but I think they need a different set of eyes looking over their shoulders," said City Councilman Richard Thomas, who supports an outside legal review of the panel's investigations.
Ronnie Cox, the board's chairwoman, brushed aside concerns that she and other members are not up to the challenge.
"We're just citizens who care about our community," Cox said. "We're not doing this for personal recognition or political gain. And it's hard to get people to participate in things of this level, especially when they're not being compensated."
SOME CALL FOR OUTSIDE PROBE
The board is investigating possible ethical violations by the city's corporation counsel and Davis' chief of staff, Nichelle Johnson, for allegedly using a BMW belonging to Sam Zherka, the controversial owner the Westchester Guardian weekly newspaper and part owner of a Manhattan strip club called Cheetahs. Board members haven't disclosed details about the inquiry.
Cox has recused herself from the investigation because she took a cruise with Johnson several years ago. She said she stepped down because she wanted to avoid "any perceived conflict of interest" in the board's probe.
Cox's recusal, however, has fueled calls by some City Council members for an outside probe.
"When we have board members recusing themselves from investigations, what else is there to do?" said Councilwoman Deborah Reynolds. "I think we need someone else to be looking at these allegations, especially if they involve council members."
Some council members argue that the board should be allowed to complete its review internally.
"We have the federal government looking at us, and that's about as outside as you can get," City Councilwoman Karen Watts said at a recent council workshop. "And if something is being done that's illegal, it's out of our hands."
Ethical questions also have been raised as to why Davis, 74, has been sending tax bills for a condo he owns in Florida to City Councilwoman Roberta Apuzzo's Mount Vernon residence.
Board members reportedly are looking into those claims, but it's not clear whether they have launched an official probe.
The possibility that the body may be looking into allegations against council members who appointed them and who have the final say in how those issues are resolved raises questions about the value and effectiveness of the panel.
The five-member Ethics Board is appointed by council members and must report the results of investigations to the council before findings are made public. The board doesn't have subpoena powers but can levy fines and make recommendations for termination and other sanctions for violations. Ultimately, the council must approve any actions.
'FOX GUARDING THE CHICKEN HOUSE?'
Board members range from professionals to retirees, and all of them have deep roots in the city.
Mary Harris, who was appointed to the panel in 2011, is a retired Con Edison employee who has volunteered for the American Cancer Society's Relay for Life and other local groups for two decades. She serves as the board's secretary.
"I'm known as a fair and honest person, and I'm committed to doing what is right for my city," she said.
Cox, who works as president of the Mount Vernon Educational Foundation, helped raise nearly $1 million several years ago to prevent the cancellation of the school district's athletics program. She has run for City Council and the Mount Vernon School Board.
Other Ethics Board members include Vivien Salmon, a hospital administrator, and James Rutter, a retired teacher and school administrator, both of whom where appointed last month. Haneef Nelson is the board's vice chairman.
To date, the body has passed a whistle-blower law for city employees and updated Mount Vernon's financial disclosure forms. It hasn't, however, had to grapple with serious allegations involving Davis and his senior administrators until recently.
Russ Haven, with the nonprofit organization New York Public Interest Research Group, said average residents -- as opposed to lawyers and others who might have political or financial interests -- are exactly the kind of people who should be looking into ethical violations.
"The issues can be complex, but let's face it: They're not as complex as, say, a criminal trial or a white-collar crime investigation, which are dealt with by average citizen juries across the country every single day," he said.
John Gallagher, a longtime observer of Mount Vernon politics, said the Ethics Board doesn't have a good track record cracking down on ethical violations. He doesn't think the newly resurrected board will have much success, either.
After a complaint was filed alleging corruption in the city's Public Works Department in 2008, Gallagher said, all but one member of the previous board resigned in protest, with some members calling the inquiry a political witch hunt.
"These are political appointees, so it's the proverbial fox guarding the chicken house," he said. "It's a joke."