The Rye Board of Ethics has found Mayor Josh Cohn and three city council members (Councilwoman Carolina Johnson, Councilwoman Julie Souza and Councilman Ben Stacks) have violated the City’s Code of Ethics. The violation centers around the city council’s emergency meeting on Monday, February 6th that was called to protect trees on Turf Avenue, a property immediately adjacent to Mayor Josh Cohn’s home on 24 Green Avenue on Milton Point.
The findings, issued by the Board of Ethics on Monday, recount a series of events where the Mayor, presenting himself as a “resident” (and not as Mayor) expressed concern over the possible removal of trees on the Turf Avenue lot. Subsequent events led to the scheduling of the emergency meeting on February 6th that was intended to take action to stop the clearcutting of the estimated 40 mature trees on the Turf Avenue property – an action that could have been perceived as benefiting the Mayor personally. A message left for Mayor Cohn by MyRye.com has not been returned.
Three council members – Councilwoman Lori Fontanes, Councilman Bill Henderson and Councilman Josh Nathan – became concerned about a real or perceived conflict of interest in an emergency meeting about a prohibition of the clear-cutting of trees that could bring personal benefit to the Mayor. They refused to attend the February 6th meeting. All three were publicly rebuked at the meeting by Councilwoman Julie Souza who accused them of playing politics.
It is worth noting that Councilman Henderson was the leader of EY’s Americas Anti-corruption Practice Group for 12 years and as a Department of Justice trial attorney investigated and prosecuted public corruption. Fontanes, Henderson and Nathan contacted the Board of Ethics last week for guidance on how to approach the next council meeting on Wednesday, February 15th given the issues they saw around the February 6th emergency meeting (a public hearing on a tree cutting moratorium is scheduled).
In the process of providing guidance, the Board of Ethics found Mayor Josh Cohn, Councilwoman Carolina Johnson, Councilwoman Julie Souza and Councilman Ben Stacks violated Rye City Code Section 15-10(B) that states:
- “An officer or employee of the City should not by his/her conduct give reasonable basis for the impression that any person can unduly influence him/her or improperly enjoy his/her favor in the performance of his/her official duties or that he/she is affected by the kinship, rank, position or influence of any party or person.”
The opinion issued by Board of Ethics Chair Beth Griffin Matthews (a former councilwoman) and members Edward B. Dunn (a former mayor) and Edward J. Stein, said in part:
- “We find that the extraordinary rush to call the meeting gives a “reasonable basis for the impression” that the Councilmembers who attended and voted at the February 6 meeting were influenced to take such an action because of the proximity of the Mayor’s property and to protect the Mayor’s property and therefore provide and elected official with a personal benefit.”
The Board recommended “to remove the potential cloud of impropriety” the Council could “re-commence” the process with a new hearing – essentially a fresh and renewed approach to the issue of tree protection in the City of Rye.
It should be a revealing City Council meeting on Wednesday. The Council will have to heal a fairly deep schism between its members and address the findings of the Board of Ethics before it can properly tackle the thorny and growing concern for protecting trees in the City of Rye.
For those interested in further detail:
The full opinion of the Board of Ethics
The video of the February 6th City Council emergency meeting with the agenda of “Consider setting a public hearing to adopt a three-month moratorium in the City of Rye temporarily prohibiting the clear-cutting of trees on any lot without a permit for the duration of this moratorium.”: