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Public, ethics board challenge code revisions
Proposed revisions to the city’s ethics program prompted heavy public response Wednesday as the City Council debated the controversial issue.
The proposed revisions to the city’s ethics program have caused public anxiety that they will harm government transparency, and place emphasis on control of the city’s administration over the city’s Ethics Board and how it handles complaints against the city.
“The present attempt by a majority of four on our current council to muzzle an independent citizen ethics advisory commission is a veiled attempt to protect the city manager’s executive department from independent citizen check and balance,” Council Member Bill Knobloch, said in a statement to the Review regarding the matter representing his opposition to the revisions. “...The proposed legislation... will work to undermine ‘due process’ for transparency and accountability in our city government.”
In response to mounting public concern over his revisions to the ethics code, Council Member Bob Scales went page by page through the code explaining each change, and the history behind them — an approach that occupied nearly an hour of the council meeting. Though even after his presentation, several members of the audience said the issue was being rushed through the council without inclusive public and city participation.
“Without some input from the Ethics Board we find this objectionable,” said Dennis Willerford, chair of the Ethics Board. “Many of these proposals are completely unworkable. I think it displays an innocent lack of understanding of how the Ethics Board works.”
After strong public response, and council debate, the council unanimously decided to hand the revisions over to the Ethics Board for review, and wait to hear the members’ opinions on the matter, which will most likely occur in 2012.
“I don’t see any threat to transparency in the suggested revisions,” said Council Member Barry Peters. “The fact that our City Council has enacted a local ethics code, which is in addition to the ethics standards that apply under state law, is a plus for transparency here in Bainbridge. Many cities have no separate ethics code at all.”
Knobloch statement further said that a motivating factor for the alterations stemmed from the recent Civil Service Commission (CSC) controversy where the Ethics Board made a determination negatively reflecting upon City Manager Brenda Bauer — a determination that the council opted not to consider before reading.
Scales explanations for his revisions were rooted in the city’s experience with the CSC actions.
A number of revisions were proposed, including one that bars the Ethics Board from making any of its determinations easily accessible to the public. Under the proposed code the board would no longer be allowed to post determinations on the city’s website, or distribute them in other ways. The only avenue for the public to know of any official determinations is for individuals to make a public records request to the city.
“The worst thing that can happen to you is we find that you have violated the ethics program,” Scales said. “With everything on the Web, that is the worst thing that can happen to you. Once it’s on the Web, it’s there forever.”
Scales noted that by removing the process from the Web, those involved in ethics complaints won’t be smeared as much before a final determination on the matter has been made — an issue he felt came up in the CSC ethics complaint.
“Unless we preserve confidentiality during the early preliminary phase of the complaint review process, an innocent volunteer could forever after have Google searches showing ‘ethics violation’ or ‘ethics complaint’ against their name,” Peters said. “Even if the complaint is later completely dismissed.”
Other revisions include limiting the ethics group to receiving advice from the city’s attorney only, or removing portions of the program stating that the board shall report violations of the law to appropriate authorities.
“Having city employees and officials involved in the process undermines the independence and credibility of the original intent for the board,” Knobloch said. “Having to ask for the record from the city clerk begs the question as to how is the public going to know what is going on?”
Knobloch, along with Christine Rolfes, Debbie Vancil and Bob Scales, originally drafted and proposed the city’s ethics program in 2003. After a series of revisions, it was finally passed in 2006. At the time there was no accountability with the mayor or city hall, according to Knobloch, who further feels that the current ethics program has been working fine and doesn’t need to be altered.
Earlier this year the ethics code was amended to include not just the council, but also members of committees and commissions, many of whom are volunteers. The code now applies to 10 times as many people, according to Peters, and therefore the risk of running into ethics violations is now higher. Peters said that the revisions will help volunteers, such as giving them access to the city attorney for advice.
The proposal is now in the hands of the Ethics Board, which will review it before any further decisions are made.