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Free passes raise ethics questions for officials

Updated 9:04 am, Monday, January 7, 2013

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  • The Gathering of the Vibes at Seaside Park in Bridgeport, Conn. Saturday, July 21, 2012. Photo: Autumn Driscoll / Connecticut Post freelance

    The Gathering of the Vibes at Seaside Park in Bridgeport, Conn. Saturday, July 21, 2012.

    Photo: Autumn Driscoll

 

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BRIDGEPORT -- As the city prepares to begin annual ethics training, elected officials may want to pay special attention to the gift prohibition.

Under a just-extended contract allowing the annual Gathering of the Vibes summer music festival to return to Seaside Park, the City Council and mayor's office are again expecting free weekend passes.

Promoter Ken Hays Friday said the passes are equivalent to a $175 ticket to the event, scheduled for July 25 to 28 at Seaside Park.

Bridgeport's ethics code prohibits officials and employees from accepting gifts worth $50 or more.

"The mayor's office gets tickets, the City Council members get tickets ... which gains them access to all the areas through the park so they can see what The Vibes is all about," Hays said.

The Vibes passes have over the past few years been a constant source of irritation for some good-government watchers.

"There should be a zero tolerance policy," said Jeff Kohut, a Democrat and ex-mayoral candidate who sat on the city's ethics commission from 2005 to 2010. "City officials should not accept any gifts from any private entity doing any sort of business with the city."

Mayor Bill Finch's office and Council President Thomas McCarthy, D-133, said officials have an obligation to monitor The Vibes to ensure the 20,000-person festival is a good thing for the city, its residents and businesses and consider improvements.

"Various city officials, including police, fire, health and parks personnel and the City Council, mayor and staff are provided with all-access passes to permit them the freedom to effectively perform their public duties and responsibilities," City Attorney Mark Anastasi said Friday.

Hays said there is a misperception the passes are equivalent to the special V.I.P. tickets that cost upward of $475.

"They cannot get backstage. They don't get meals," Hays said.

McCarthy said he attends for an hour at the most, and some council members do not go at all.

"The Vibes is not my thing. It's not my music. But it's a great thing for the city," McCarthy said. "The whole point is for us to have an understanding of what it is, so when we do have contract talks we have a sense of what we're doing."

The city just extended The Vibes' five-year contract an additional five years. Asked why council members still needed the option of free passes, McCarthy said because every year the festival is different. He added that under the new contract the council can cancel the event after two years.

McCarthy and Anastasi also emphasized the city ethics commission in 2010 found no probable cause of ethics violations when then-Republican Chairman Marc Delmonico filed a complaint about the free Vibes passes.

"We were exonerated," McCarthy said.

But Kohut points out the commission is advised by the city attorney's office and does not have the resources to launch truly independent probes.

Probable cause investigations are confidential, so there is no public information detailing how the commission arrived at its decision.

"It was not the outcome I expected," Delmonico said. "You don't have to be a rocket scientist to see something is wrong."

But his successor, John Slater, said Bridgeport has far bigger problems than how many officials attend The Vibes for free.

brian.lockhart@scni.com; 203-414-0712; http://twitter.com/blockhart1