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October 20, 2013

Niagara Town Board looks to ethics panel over insurance coverage issue; wants town finances checked out

Tonawanda News — TOWN OF NIAGARA — Three of the town's four board members have asked a local ethics panel to investigate embattled Supervisor Steve Richards' handling of insurance coverage for town employees and their domestic partners. 

During a meeting this week, council members Charles Teixeira, Rob Clark and Marc Carpenter agreed to ask town's ethics board to investigate whether Richards initiated changes to the town's insurance coverage without input or approval from the town board. 

Council members who supported the measure say information obtained from the human resources department suggests the changes, which allowed for coverage of town employees' domestic partners, were implemented last February. They also believe the move may have cleared the way for an employee of Richards' privately owned auto repair shop — who was in a relationship with a town clerk at the time — to obtain health insurance under the municipality's coverage plan.

While not necessarily opposed to the town allowing domestic partners to qualify for coverage, Teixeira said Richards lacked the authority to arbitrarily institute any coverage changes. He said all alterations should be discussed and authorized by the town board with involvement from representatives of the town employees' union. 

"This is something that should have been discussed," he said. "It's not that we're against it, but this is a paid benefit to employees and it's something that should have been reviewed by the town board and discussed with the union." 

The ethics board is comprised of three residents who are appointed by the town board. Ethics board members have the power to render advisory opinions upon written request. According to the law establishing the body, the opinions are to be "advisory and confidential" in nature and are not be disclosed except to "authorized persons and agencies."  

"There might be more action we can take once we find out what's going on," Teixeira said. "It's just a first step to get it out there and try to get some more information."

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