City council adopts code of conduct, ethics pledge

City council adopts code of conduct, ethics pledge

By Chris Teale (File photo)

City council unanimously adopted a code of conduct and ethics pledge at its legislative meeting Tuesday night. Both will be scheduled for a review and discussions by residents at a yet-to-be-determined public hearing next year.

Councilors’ approval came after a long discussion surrounding some of the language contained within the pledge and code, as well as talks on the process of approval and its application to council-appointed staff: the city manager, city attorney and city clerk.

The revised ethics code commits councilors to participating in a professional development activity on ethics once a term, as opposed to once a year as in a previous draft. It also requires councilors engage in community dialogue on ethics once per term, down from once a year, and provides for a public hearing during each council term to review the code of ethics and conduct.

Included in the code’s preamble — moved to the bottom of the document as a postscript by councilors — is language specifying that the code is aspirational rather than purely legal.
Only the mayor and city councilors are required to sign the ethics pledge, al- though previous iterations required all other appointed officials to have to do the same, including residents serving on boards and commissions.

The language of the pledge also was tweaked slightly to say that actions by officials cannot “result in, and avoiding even the appearance of personal gain or conflict of interest,” as op- posed to councilors taking no actions that will “result in or create the appearance of personal gain or conflict of interest.”

Councilors agreed to move along a process that first began in January, when Mayor Allison Silberberg fulfilled one of her key election promises just weeks after being sworn in as council established an ad hoc ethics committee to study a code and pledge.

The committee returned a draft in April, which was then studied by City Attorney James Banks to analyze its legality. Banks then returned his findings to councilors in a memo sent May 20.

The removal of the need for members of boards and commissions and city staff to take the pledge was key in councilors’ deliberations, as they said that the pledges and oaths of offices already required should suffice. Silberberg expressed a reluctance to do so, saying that she had not heard concerns from a single board or com- mission member about taking this pledge.

But other councilors disagreed, expressing the belief that the code and pledge should apply to elected officials only.

“Our first step needs to be to focus on the seven of us,” said City Councilor John Chapman.

“I don’t want to get into a practice of just by passing a resolution, imposing new
rules on our employees,” said Vice Mayor Justin Wilson.

Chapman also raised concerns at the provision in the code for ethical professional development to take place at council’s fall retreat, at which it discusses numerous issues with staff in a public setting.

With discussions at the retreat often curtailed due to time constraints, Chapman questioned how appropriate it was to add another item on ethics training, when councilors should take the initiative themselves on professional development.

“This should really be a personal quest to have good ethical leadership, not some- thing that has to be regimented and scheduled for us,” he said.

In the final language, adopted on motions made by City Councilor Tim Lovain, ethical professional development at council’s retreat remains as an option, but he and others indicated a willingness to be flexible.

Councilors questioned the need to apply the pledge and code to the city manager, city attorney and city clerk, and some suggested something could be formulated in the future to apply to those three employees.

Chapman and Wilson noted the ethical requirements that already exist for council- appointed employees through trade organizations and regional governing bodies, while City Councilor Willie Bailey expressed his unease at forcing another pledge on nonelected officials.

“I have an issue with it, so I don’t feel comfortable telling someone else they have to do it,” he said. Bailey said he already felt he had asked himself questions about his future ethical behavior when he ran for office in the first place.

Silberberg pushed repeatedly for the pledge and code to be docketed for council’s June public hearing, its last before the summer recess. She said she wanted to hear the public’s input, and that as of yet, the public had not had its say at City Hall. When the committee was formed in January, several speakers signed up to discuss ethics during the public discussion period at the start of the public hearing agenda.

With the code and pledge enacted, councilors have one year before both are docketed for discussion and review at a future public hearing. The pledge and code will be renewed at the start of each council term, with room for alterations in the language by the new council if felt necessary.