News10NBC Investigates: Rochester’s Board of Ethics has done absolutely nothing the past year and a half

News10NBC Investigates: Rochester’s Board of Ethics hasn’t met since December of 2021

News10NBC Investigates: Rochester's Board of Ethics hasn't met since December of 2021

ROCHESTER, N.Y. — Inside a nearly empty City Council chamber on October 10, the City’s Board of Ethics was called to order. The last time they did this was 21 months ago — December 2021.

That meeting was remote and dealt with a single complaint that came in six months before.

When you look at the board’s meetings going back two years all you see is “cancelled.” 

Berkeley Brean, News10NBC: “How do you explain that?”
Carl Steinbrenner: “Again, as we’ve discussed the current code of ethics has a number of deficiencies.”

Carl Steinbrenner is the chair of the board. He says the board only meets if it gets a complaint.

Brean: “So, this complaint at the meeting tonight is the first one you’ve had since 2021.”
Steinbrenner: “Yes.”

“Did you know that yours was the first complaint to the ethics board in about two years?” Berkelye asked Lori Thomas.

“I did not,” she said.

Thomas is the reason there was a meeting in October at all. She filed a conflict of interest complaint against a member of the City’s zoning board.

“If you don’t meet, how can you be assured that oversight it happening?” Thomas wondered.

Cheryl Robinson is a neighborhood activist and joined her friend Thomas at the meeting. Robinson knew the board hadn’t met because she checks the website like we do.

“And what did you see when you went there?” I asked.

“Cancelled. Cancelled. Cancelled,” Robinson said. “There was a series of dates where the meetings were supposed to be scheduled and then next to it was cancelled, cancelled, cancelled.”

Just about every county and a handful of cities in New York have ethics boards. They take complaints about county and city employees, and the board sees if they violated the code of ethics.

Monroe County’s Board of Ethics met three times already this year.

Buffalo’s Board of Ethics went two years without meeting, not because they didn’t have any complaints, but because they didn’t have anyone appointed to the board.

A day after it was exposed by Buffalo’s Investigative Post, the Buffalo mayor appointed new members. The Buffalo board has met six times this year and it can fine people up to $10,000.

Brean: “Can you sanction the person who violated the code?”
Steinbrenner: “No. No. We have no power under the current code. We are simply an advisory body.”

Steinbrenner calls the City’s code of ethics convoluted and confusing. He says the board is talking with City Council and the mayor’s office to, as Steinbrenner calls it, “upgrade” the code — make it simpler and let anyone file a complaint.

Steinbrenner: “If a resident or someone who lives in the City of Rochester believes there’s an issue that should be looked at that, not only do we respond to it, but that we’re mandated to respond to it and that issue gets addressed.”
Brean: “And do you think you ought to have some teeth?”
Steinbrenner: “Yes.”

The current rules say the board is only obligated to take complaints from City employees. Online, the meetings go back to 2014. There are seven board members, and they’re all volunteers.

The next meeting is November 21 when the board take up Thomas’ complaint and any others that might come in now.