News and Tribune

September 1, 2013

New Albany: A highly ethical city?

Ethics, human rights commissions still haven’t heard a case

By DANIEL SUDDEATH
daniel.suddeath@newsandtribune.com

NEW ALBANY — The New Albany Human Rights and Ethics Commissions were established by the city more than a year ago, but to date, neither have heard cases.

Some see that as a positive reflection of New Albany, while others believe the boards should be more involved in the process of selecting what they review.

“It seems like the human rights commission has been kind of pushed to the back burner a little bit,” commission member Brad Bell said.

The board — which was established in July of 2012 — hasn’t heard a case, which is somewhat suspicious, he continued.

“We’d love to think it’s because the community is so diverse and open is the reason we don’t have any [complaints], but I think we all know a little better than that,” Bell said.

According to city officials, only one complaint was filed for a Human Rights Commission review, but that matter was resolved before it was presented to the body.

The procedure calls for complaints to be submitted to the city’s legal department for review, and then forwarded to the five-member commission if deemed necessary.

Bell said the policy for accepting complaints has been discussed by the commission.

“I feel very strongly that the take-in process of complaints needs to be changed,” he said.

The commission can rule on cases that involve racial, sexual or gender discrimination, but it is the council that sets the body’s authority and the procedure for handling those complaints.

Councilman Greg Phipps sponsored the measure to establish the human rights commission. Bell said the commission hasn’t approached Phipps yet about changing any of the board’s procedures, and the councilman said Friday he’s comfortable with the current format of the process.

As for whether the commission should consider addressing issues on a wider scale beyond submitted complaints, Phipps said the body was not shaped to search out problems unilaterally.

“There’s different points of view on that, but I think we set the commission up to be more reactive than proactive,” he said.

Messages and phone calls to city attorneys Stan Robison and Shane Gibson on Friday had not been returned or were unsuccessful as of press time.



STILL WAITING ON RULES APPROVAL

As for the Ethics Commission — which differs from the human rights commission because it only considers cases regarding public officials — the timing of the formation of the body appears to be keeping it from hearing one complaint that has been made public.

Local businessman and resident Randy Smith filed a complaint with the ethics commission against David Duggins, director of economic development and redevelopment for the city, over the firing of former New Albany Urban Enterprise Executive Director Mike Ladd.

Smith alleged that several actions made by Duggins during the process were unethical including accusing Ladd of paying claims without board approval.

However, since the alleged actions took place in March of 2012, about five months before the body was established, the ethics commission is likely not to review the case.

In March, commission member and local attorney Claire Hagedorn said the body still needed to set its operating procedures, but that as she understood it, they would not be reviewing situations that occurred prior to the board’s establishment.

Mayor Jeff Gahan has stated he would favor the commission hearing the case because he believes Duggins did nothing wrong.

Earlier this week, Duggins maintained he acted appropriately while overseeing the elimination of the executive director’s position for the UEZ.

“I know and feel very strongly that nothing unethical has been done in the termination case of” Ladd, he said, as Duggins added he would “happy to discuss” the matter with the ethics commission.

Smith — who worked on the campaign for former Councilman Jack Messer when he ran against Gahan for mayor in 2011 — said he hasn’t received a response from the ethics commission about his complaint, but is still interested in seeing the case reviewed by the board.

The longer it takes to get a response, the worse it looks for the administration and the ethics commission, Smith said when contacted by the News and Tribune.

Messages left for Hagedorn this week hadn’t been returned as of press time.

The ethics commission was the idea of Councilman John Gonder. He said on Friday the commission has formed a rough draft of its operating procedures, and the council could act soon to approve or revise those bylaws.

“We’re not trying to expedite any cases but want to make sure something is passed so [the commission] isn’t just languishing there,” Gonder said.

There are still other matters pending regarding Ladd’s termination.

The Indiana Department of Labor had been investigating a claim that Ladd was owed $1,875 in pay at the time he was fired, and never received payment.

According to documents obtained by the News and Tribune, the state was unable to determine whether the wages claimed were actually owed because the UEZ never responded to their inquiries.

Ladd declined to comment on the matter at the advice of his attorney as both sides concede there are pending legal issues revolving around the termination.

Duggins said the UEZ attempted to mail two checks to cover the $1,875 for two weeks of pay they believe he was due, but they were returned and not cashed.

“We do feel like he was entitled to the remaining two weeks of his contract,” Duggins said.



GETTING THE WORD OUT

In the case of the human rights commission, Bell believes the public still doesn’t fully understand the role of the body.

He said the commission is planning to hold a forum where members of the community and different organizations are invited to learn more about the board.

“We would love for the entire community to know that we’re here to help,” he said.

New Albany’s human rights commission is one of the first established in the state. Housing, employment and voting rights — Bell said the commission is there to protect those who endure discrimination on just about any front.

“We want people to know that if they hear complaints or know of somebody who is being discriminated against, that they have an outlet that they can go to,” Bell said.



• The New Albany Human Rights Commission was established in July of 2012 and the Ethics Commission in August of 2012 by the New Albany City Council.