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Revised ethics program drawing mixed reviews

Backers want a proposed ‘ethics board’ to have authority over City Hall workers, too.

The City Council agreed “in principle” with a revised city ethics program on Monday, eliciting both praise and disappointment from proponents of greater government accountability.

“We’ve come a long way from where we started,” said Bob Schoonmaker, a member of the city’s Ethics Citizen Advisory Committee who has worked for over three years on the program.

“At least the City Council is doing something. I’m disappointed it wasn’t moved further along, but we’ve got momentum.”

A draft of the code proposed last summer by the committee would have established a formal hearing process for complaints against officials, administrators, staff and citizen committee members

The ethics code would be overseen by an independent, five-member board, which in an earlier draft would have had subpoena power.

But some councilors expressed concern that the committee’s proposed ethics program was “ripe for abuse,” according to Councilman Bob Scales, who initiated a number of deletions and rewrites.

He and former councilwoman Christine Rolfes rewrote portions of the draft, making the program only apply to elected officials and reducing the ethics board’s authority to conduct inquiries into alleged ethics violations.

Some key facts in an investigation would also not be disclosed to the board, including the accused’s name and the specifics of the alleged violation.

“We tried to address the issue of a witch hunt,” said Rolfes on the question of not publicly disclosing some facts in an ongoing investigation.

“If a question has no merit or confusing facts, (an official) would not be dragged through the mud.”

But the council’s decision to keep an investigation’s details “hypothetical” would lessen the board’s effectiveness, said committee member Charles Schmid.

“It’s hard to operate without facts,” he said. “The council sees this as a top-down process. Our committee sees this as bottom-up and having the right to know how they operate ethically.”

The council’s decision not to apply the program to members of citizen committees, department heads and staff means the board will have to work harder to educate non-elected officials on ethical behavior, Schoonmaker said.

“Committee members don’t make policy, but they do an awful lot of stuff that, if they’re not cognizant,” could compromise ethical standards, he said.

Schoonmaker offered his own relationship to the city to illustrate the possible ethical violations that could loom ahead.

“I’m a member of the Harbor Commission and I have a captain’s license, but there’s nothing that says I can’t be hired to drive a boat for the city,” he said. “That could be a potential benefit to me.”

Even if Harbor Commission members and others associated with the city aren’t bound by the new ethics rules, Schoonmaker said education would still play a vital role in preventing ethics violations.

“As far as ethics are concerned, it’s more of a culture than an ordinance,” he said. “You can’t legislate moral behavior. You have to educate why it’s the right thing to do.”

The council sent the proposed ethics program to the city attorney for minor changes.

Final consideration of the program is expected to take place in mid-April.

* * * * *

Ethical challenges

Highlights of the draft of the city ethics ordinance include:

* Establishing standards for ethical conduct.

* Providing ethical standards training and clarification.

* Establishing a system for advice and assistance on possible ethical violations.

* Creating a board of ethics to assist the city administration.

* Providing the means to enforce a code of ethics.

* Supplementing the statements of the “core values of the city,” which applies ethical standards city employees and officers.

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