With petitioning underway, the City of Yonkers is rolling full-steam ahead into political campaign season. This year, voters will decide on the Mayor, three City Council seats, and all four of its County Legislators. And with so many incumbents seeking office, either for re-election or election to new office, an explainer on ethics boundaries for campaigning seems well-timed.
The Yonkers City Charter uses very plain language on political campaigning. And many rules apply not only for candidates themselves, but for all City staff that may be–intentionally or not–engaged in political activity. At the end of the day, whether elected or employed, these are taxpayer-funded jobs that are prohibited from non-governmental tasks. Let’s review some of these explicitly forbidden tasks.
Firstly, and most obviously, no elected official or city employee can request any other city employee to participate in any political activity. Yonkers is not alone in this restriction as a recent election for Westchester County Executive sparked similar controversy. But, the ethics provision in Yonkers goes even farther. It even prohibits requesting any city contractor to engage in political campaigning as well. So, if you have received any payment or benefit from the City of Yonkers in the past 12 months, you cannot be directed by anyone in city government to aid in their campaign for office.
And on the topic of payments, there is a lengthy section on the disclosure of political donations. Put plainly, candidates receiving a sum total donation of $5,000 or more in the past 12 months from a single entity should disclose these donations in writing. Particularly if this donor may receive a benefit from said elected officer. This is an additional disclosure beyond the public data that is published by the New York Board of Elections here: https://publicreporting.elections.ny.gov/
On the clock
rumored known that the following restriction is flouted frequently. Taxpayer-funded city workers cannot engage in political campaign activities while working on city time. Meaning, if during your working hours–whether physically in City Hall or not–you cannot campaign for a candidate. This includes, but is not limited to: organizing fundraisers, calling time for donations, sending campaign emails, or anything at all having to do with politics. The residents of Yonkers pay taxes to fund government salaries. These salaries are to aid in the benefit of residents. Taxes are not meant to benefit individuals’ political aspirations.
Beyond not campaigning on city-time, you can’t campaign while wearing city clothing either. In context, a Yonkers Police Officer can’t canvass neighborhoods in their dress uniform. Nor can a DPW worker wear a sweatshirt emblazoned with the City of Yonkers seal while setting up tables and chairs at a political event. This type of action implies that the City, which represents all residents, is endorsing a particular candidate. A recent incident in neighboring NYC highlighted a candidate for Assembly campaigning in their military uniform.
And there’s a catch-all
Lastly, the Yonkers City Charter lays out an inducement prohibition in its ethics section. Given the above restrictions–and all ethical restrictions–no one shall induce another into violating any prohibition defined. Ergo, asking someone to break the rules means you, yourself, are breaking the rules.
When any of the above violations occur, there is a process to report them. The City of Yonkers Ethics Board is tasked with investigating violations and recommending penalties. This seven-member board is appointed by the Mayor, City Council President, and the Presiding Judge of the Yonkers City Court. Unfortunately, the transparency of this board is lacking. Proven by the public listing of its members being inaccurate and incomplete with two members even being deceased. However, a few remaining members still meet quarterly to address ethics complaints. These complaints must be submitted in writing to the Corporation Counsel’s office who serves as staff to this board.. The Corporation Counsel’s office (the City’s Law Department) may be reached by phone at (914) 377-6250. Additionally, these complaints can also be sent to the Inspector General, Liam McLaughlin. Lastly, the City Council is also bestowed with investigative authority and can be contacted to report potential wrongdoing within City Hall.
If you wish to report a violation, but work for the City and are afraid of retaliation from your co-workers or superiors, the charter shields you. There is a Whistleblower Protection section and any retaliation may be reversed.
When reported, the Ethics Board (or another other investigative body) undertakes the responsibility for inquiry and then offers a recommendation to the City on potential violations and possible penalties. And these penalties vary greatly. Firstly, a monetary fine ranging from $250 to $10,000 may be imposed. If the violator is a City employee, that employee may be suspended or terminated. If they are a private vendor doing business with the City, their current contract(s) with the City may be voided and they may also be prevented from future contracts with the City. Lastly, if the conduct constitutes a criminal offense, the matter can be referred to the Westchester County District Attorney or Assistant U.S. Attorney both in White Plains.
There are so many hotly contested races this year in Yonkers. And there are many incumbents who control levers of power in government, and may not want to lose that power. And in the desire to win in these tough races, they may themselves, or through their agents, misuse and abuse their office for personal gain. It is therefore incumbent upon them, other servants of the City, and all of us as residents to make sure that abuse does not occur.