We stand with Mayor Josh Cohn and Councilmembers Carolina Johnson, Julie Souza and Ben Stacks. We support them because they acted ethically and legally, contrary to misinformation being disseminated by some with a political agenda. Their actions were by the book, yet they have been greatly misrepresented.
Their alleged “crime”? They tried to save some trees. This effort was misrepresented deliberately by their colleagues on the Council, carelessly by the Board of Ethics, and irresponsibly by some members of the press. It started with a mere allegation but snowballed to the point where people now wrongly believe that these dedicated public servants have been convicted of some corrupt back-room deal. Not true!
The misguided misrepresentation could have dire effects on their careers and livelihoods. Ben Stacks, a mid-career executive, has already been questioned at work about his so-called “ethics conviction.”
This is appalling.
It began when the mayor learned that a wooded lot behind his house was slated for clear-cutting. He found out a bit more and then recused himself, leaving it up to Deputy Mayor Carolina Johnson to decide whether or not to do anything.
Carolina Johnson, Julie Souza and Ben Stacks sprang into action, calling an emergency meeting for February 6th. Not coincidentally, those three councilmembers are the City’s Tree Committee. They were already working on a tree law that would provide residents and builders some guidelines for tree preservation, which is an important issue for Rye. So, it is no surprise that they acted immediately to save 40 mature trees. Yet, their actions got distorted with the insinuation by some that they were acting to stop development on this lot, and that they were doing this because the lot was adjacent to the mayor’s property. The truth, of course, is that they were not trying to stop development, but just save some of the lot’s trees. And they would have taken the same action regardless of where the 40 mature trees were located.
Yet on February 11th, The Rye Record erroneously reported that the mayor had called the emergency meeting. This “fake news” created a false impression of impropriety. This falsehood was further propagated by the three councilmembers who are regularly at odds with their colleagues now being accused. Bill Henderson, Lori Fontanes and Josh Nathan boycotted the meeting and alleged impropriety. On the dais and in the press, they spread the false allegation that Josh, Carolina, Julie and Ben would have proceeded differently had those trees been in another part of town.
Was this accusation plausible? Of course not. Not if you know what Mayor Cohn and the Tree Committee members have consistently done, without fanfare, to preserve Rye’s trees. Not if you know Josh, Carolina, Ben or Julie as neighbors, or if you’ve watched City Council meetings, and know them to be exceptionally honorable, principled people dedicated to serving the City of Rye’s interests.
In addition to making public allegations, Councilmembers Henderson, Nathan and Fontanes complained to the Ethics Board. Astonishingly, without even speaking to Josh, Carolina, Julie and Ben, the Ethics Board published an opinion saying the four of them had given “a reasonable basis for the impression of unethical conduct.” So much for due process!
We respectfully disagree with the Ethics Board’s opinion. It contains factual errors and illogical reasoning. Had they exercised due diligence in their investigative process, they might have reached a different conclusion. And, they would have redacted their opinion, as the City Code mandates.
Significantly, the very first word of the opinion is CONFIDENTIAL, underlined and in capital letters. Yet it was sent straight to the press. While no one has publicly owned up to this ethics violation, Bill Henderson stated in a phone conversation with one of us that Lori Fontanes and Josh Nathan asked if he minded if they sent it to the press, and he told them that as far as he was concerned, they could do whatever they liked with it.
The Rye Record and MyRye.com printed articles that gave readers the impression that Josh, Julie, Ben and Carolina had been convicted of serious ethical misconduct by a legal or quasi-legal process. News aggregators including Yahoo News picked up the story and spread it all over the Internet. The damage from the misleading information is immeasurable. We already know that it affected Ben’s workplace.
This is not about ego. It’s not about their concern for their local reputations. They’re worried about the potential harm to their careers, their livelihoods and their families’ well-being. Accepting such harm meekly is not something we should ask of our volunteers.
This is why Josh, Carolina, Julie and Ben are so understandably upset.
They reached out multiple times to the Ethics Board asking them to revisit their opinion. Most recently, at the request of Rye residents, they invited the Ethics Board to mediation. Until now, the Ethics Board has refused to respond.
Without a response from the Ethics Board, they resorted to the courts to clear their names. The lawsuit was far smaller in scope than many realized. They were not suing the members of the Ethics Board, or anyone else. They sought no damages. The action would not even involve a trial. They were simply asking a judge to look at the so-called “CONFIDENTIAL ADVISORY OPINION” of February 13th and decide if the Board was arbitrary or abused its discretion.
This is the very least they deserve — to have a baseless opinion reviewed by a court of law.
Of course, a far better solution for all would be, first, for the Board of Ethics to retract its flawed opinion; next, for Josh, Carolina, Julie and Ben to withdraw their lawsuit; and finally, for the community to give credit where credit is due – that is, to Josh, Carolina, Julie and Ben.
These four volunteers have devoted the last six years of their lives to enhancing our lives, quietly improving the City’s finances, infrastructure, and environment. And they have done it without compensation. In return, they’ve become walking illustrations of the saying, “No good deed goes unpunished.” It’s both unacceptable and heartbreaking.
Christine Min Groves
Samantha Sidari Tollinchi
1City of Rye, NY, Ethics, Code of. Disclosure of confidential information. § 15-6 B. “No officer or employee of the City shall disclose confidential information acquired by him/her in the course of his/her official duties…”