County Ethics Board Punts on Use of County Seal
By Darryl McPherson
It was reported back in March that Erie County Executive Mark C. Poloncarz was using the County Seal on his political website. Local attorney Peter Reese believed such a use was a violation of the County Charter and sought an official inquiry by County Comptroller Stefan I. Mychajliw. Mychajliw felt his office did not have legal jurisdiction and referred the matter to the County Board of Ethics.
Shortly after the matter was reported in the newspaper, the seal was removed from the website. The Comptroller’s spokesperson, Peter Anderson said the seal was removed along with other changes being made to the website. He maintained that the use of the seal was not improper.
At the April 16 meeting of the Ethics Board, the use of the seal was addressed. In a brief letter to Comptroller Mychajliw, Board Chair Steven Schwartz reported, “our opinion is that the proper use of the Seal of the County of Erie is limited to official Erie County business.” Without offering any definition of what is (or is not) “official Erie County business”, the Ethics Board closed the matter.
The response to the issue, or lack thereof, outraged the initial complainant Reese. “This is absurd! How can there be no one to oversee what is going on in County Hall? If someone is misusing or misappropriating County property, what are we supposed to do, sue them?’ Reese mused. He suggested that an Inspector General position should be created for Erie County, or that the State Inspector General be empowered to look into the misuse of assets and property of local governments.
On behalf of the County Executive’s office, Anderson said, “No, this would just be creating a new position that would be taxpayer-funded, and that's not necessary. There are offices already in place to handle issues such as this, like the Ethics Board, so there's not a need to create an entirely new office.”
The Comptroller had a slightly different take. He felt the Board’s opinion was “an important first step.” He believes fraud, waste, and abuse fall within the Comptroller’s jurisdiction and does not see the need for another official. “This should be taken up by the Legislature and they can determine what constitutes County business,” Mychajliw said. “They can put the issue to bed immediately and pass a proactive resolution.”
In the meantime, in light of the Ethics Board’s extremely narrow response to the issue raised by Reese, there seems to be a gap in the oversight role. While no one definitively says what constitutes what is right or wrong, “Poloncarz’s fundraisers are not official County business,” noted Reese. “Although a more forceful and definitive statement would have been appreciated, I still feel like a hunter driving back from the woods with a dead deer on the fender of my pickup.”