Note: This story was updated to clarify the Mayor is recommending a review of the City Code that governs the Board of Ethics (versus a review of the Board or its members).
In a turn of events, City of Rye Mayor Josh Cohn and his Gang of Four moved on Wednesday to drop their lawsuit against the City’s own Board of Ethics. The Gang of Four sent a stipulation of discontinuance indicating the withdrawal of the lawsuit. For the suit to formally end, the stipulation needs to be agreed to by the Board of Ethics and filed with the Court.
At the same time, the Mayor is looking to put the Code that governs City’s Board of Ethics into a review.
“To be clear, none of us have done anything wrong,” said a joint statement released end of day Wednesday by Mayor Josh Cohn and Councilmembers Carolina Johnson, Julie Souza and Ben Stacks. The group maintains the Board of Ethics process was deeply flawed and their hands were forced to file suit to clear their names.
“To ensure our situation never happens again, we will focus on updating and modernizing our outdated Code of Ethics, which was written in the 1960’s,” said the joint statement. “To do so, we are calling for an independent working panel, including expertise in municipal ethics, that will review and provide recommendations to improve and modernize our city’s Code of Ethics.”
Putting the governance – the Code – of the City’s own Board of Ethics into review is likely to keep the Board of Ethics findings on the Mayor’s Gang of Four and the Mayor’s lawsuit (even once dropped) in the public eye.
“Any amendment to the code has to go to the whole city council,” said Councilmember Carolina Johnson in response to how proposed changes to the governance of the Board of Ethics would be adopted. “You have to have public hearings … the whole process, say for example, what we did with the trees. You have your meetings in group and session and then you present and then you debate and then you invite the public to come to the public hearings, and then you adjust and then and then you vote.”
Johnson thought given summer schedules and the work involved it would be into the fall before the group advances suggestions on how to update the City’s Code of Ethics.
The full statement follows:
Statement of Council Members Carolina Johnson, Julie Souza and Ben Stacks, and Mayor Josh Cohn, August 2, 2023
“As volunteer City Council Members and Mayor of the City of Rye who have sacrificed countless hours for the good of our community, we find ourselves in a necessary but increasingly awkward and undesirable position: legally challenging an opinion of the volunteer board of ethics in order to clear our names. This recourse was not remotely our first choice of action, but this misguided and misinformed opinion – leaked publicly – is so factually wrong, misrepresentative of the truth and procedurally untethered that we had no choice but to try to call out a deeply flawed process, restore our credibility, and protect and encourage future volunteer officials.
“We are confident we would win in the court of law. (Our guide and counsel, Karl J. Sleight, is the former Executive Director of the NY State Ethics Commission and, in addition, after consultation, the New York Conference of Mayors and Municipal Officials (NYCOM) ethics guidance (attached) is consistent with our position.) However, after weeks of discussion, we have decided to withdraw our lawsuit and instead pursue a different path to find a long-term solution and ensure this deeply broken process cannot happen again. Why? Because our counsel’s review (and our litigation papers) and the NYCOM concurrence have taken us past the shock of our own mistreatment to an understanding that Rye’s Code of Ethics and Board of Ethics must have a holistic review beyond that which a court reviewing one wrong decision is likely to provide.”
“As our attorney, Karl Sleight, puts it: ‘My clients have reconfirmed (through NYCOM) that their ethics concerns at issue in the litigation were meritorious. Although the end of the litigations means a legal answer to a legal question will not occur, a more important victory is had. Rye will start down the path of updating aand improving their Code of Ethics, which will benefit everyone in the city.’”
“To be clear, none of us have done anything wrong. We have served this community for years, ethically and thoughtfully, and yet, now, our professional careers are being put at risk. This is completely unacceptable, for us and for those who follow in our positions. Most prominently, the Board of Ethics’ lack of fair process must be changed. To ensure our situation never happens again, we will focus on updating and modernizing our outdated Code of Ethics, which was written in the 1960’s. To do so, we are calling for an independent working panel ,including expertise in municipal ethics, that will review and provide recommendations to improve and modernize our city’s Code of Ethics. We expect to be able to present such a panel shortly.
“This has been an immensely painful and frustrating time for all of us and our families. We did not choose this fight. Nor do we believe what has transpired since February in this regard has helped anyone, especially our community that looks to us to help solve issues, not create new ones. We hope – and expect – our city council colleagues will join us in moving forward with civility to find common ground and better solutions for our community.”
In an effort to resolve the dispute and find a commonsense solution, we repeatedly contacted the Board of Ethics in attempts to correct the opinion’s misrepresentations and to have a fair discussion of the facts. We were met with a curt lawyer’s, “No.” We raised our concerns publicly on the Council dais, to no response. We tried informal outreach through third parties, we tried a lawyer’s letter. Nothing changed. For months, we tried again and again to have the opinion revised and our case heard, but time and again we were rebuffed, often without even a response.
We have offered to meet to try to find a middle ground, only to be denied. And so, we filed a legal challenge, not just to clear our names but also to help ensure that this cannot be repeated. At the request of Rye residents, we invited the Board to formal mediation of our suit, only to be rejected. We offered to hold our suit in abeyance and work with the Board and a municipal ethics expert in review and revision of our ethics code that would test the foundations of the Board’s opinion. The Board said no. And now we are left with our city divided and in distress and no immediate resolution of the issue. We have thought long and hard over the past month and believe that at this point we have created the record we need to rebut the Board’s opinion should it be an issue in our working lives. That belief allows us to shift our focus from our lawsuit, which we have withdrawn, to fixing the system overall.
Council Members Carolina Johnson, Julie Souza and Ben Stacks, and Mayor Josh Cohn also provided the following “New York Conference of Mayors and Municipal Oﬃcials Ethics Guidance, August 2, 2023” that Johnson said was worked on in consultation with New York State Conference of Mayors Counsel John A. Mancini.