Proposed ethics code leaves council with questions

The Ocean Shores City Council has drafted a proposed code of ethics that would apply to local elected officials.

Council members, however, still have many questions about the details, who will hear or rule on complaints, and what the punishments might be.

At a study session last week, Councilman Dan Overton said the proposed code was drafted from a combination of codes from other cities. It also contains a proposed “code of conduct,” which he said represents “an indication of how we are hoping we are going to conduct ourselves once we’re elected.”

“Ethics,” Overton added, “needs to be a definitive right or wrong” to determine “what side of the fence one falls on if there is an issue.”

“This is by no means a finished, polished product,” Overton said.

Councilman John Lynn said he and Overton were assisted by research from the Municipal Research and Services Center website, and looked at a number of codes of ethics.

“Rather than reinvent the wheel, we went to what other cities actually have done and brought that in,” Lynn said.

There is a specific complaint section and form, and Lynn noted it applies only to elected officials, not for employees of the city.

One of the issues is who would hear a complaint.

Looking at other cities, Lynn said a lot of them never had a complaint once the policy was enacted.

“Evidently, just having the policy is enough to give people guidance,” he said.

Among items covered would be a ban on acceptance of gifts, defining conflicts of interest and insisting that they be declared in any voting matter, outlining when to abstain from debate, requiring a listing of real property holdings, and requiring confidentiality in handling privileged, confidential or proprietary information.

Councilman John Schroeder said he was concerned the code of conduct proposed was too vague and left open to interpretation.

“We all know what is right and wrong. Period,” he said.

Part of the proposed code of conduct states an elected public official shall “be dedicated to the concepts of effective and democratic local government and set a positive example of good citizenship by scrupulously observing the letter and spirit of laws, rules and regulations.”

Schroeder suggested that the word “scrupulously” could be defined several ways.

Overton noted that many cities don’t have a code of conduct with a code of ethics for that very reason.

“The code of conduct by its very nature is designed to be somewhat broad because there is no specific right or wrong,” he explained, suggesting it could be dropped and the council could choose to go with just the code of ethics and its specified definitions.

Lynn said the idea is to appoint or designate a hearings examiner or a committee to rule on ethics complaints, and that would come from outside of the City Council. One suggestion is an inter-local agreement with another city in the county.

“First of all, I don’t think any of us wants to sit in judgment of the rest of the elected officials,” he said.

Responding to Schroeder’s comments, Lynn noted two council members might differ widely on what is right or wrong.

“John, I know we all know right or wrong, but I will tell you it isn’t that easy,” Lynn said. “What you think is right and what I think is right can be exactly opposite. What we need to do is have some sort of process.”

Councilman Ed Engel said he would object to any form of monetary penalty.

“I don’t think there should punitive fine anywhere,” Engel said. “I think censure-ship (sic) would be enough. A letter of reprimand is a lot worse than being fined because that stays with you through life.”

Other proposed penalties would be an admonition, a reprimand and, ultimately, removal from office.

Resident Walt Hill, who first proposed the council adopt a code, said he saw no mention of favoritism as a violation, which he believed should be a part of the code. But Hill also objected to appointing an outside hearing examiner to rule on violations.

“Council members and administrators need to realize they were elected by the people and they have a right to question what they do,” Hill said. “Any complaint against a council member or administrators should be conducted by the council and mayor and not some hearing official. Those making the complaint should be required to provide proof of the situation that took place.”

Hill added that based on what he had read, he didn’t see “concrete accountability or guidelines to make decisions.”

Mayor Crystal Dingler recommended having an outside and independent process to rule on complaints.

“It takes personalities out of this and … we really don’t need that kind of conflict,” she said.

“I think there is a lot of really good stuff in here, and it takes it out of us trying to handle things that are very delicate to handle,” Dingler added.

A final draft of the code will be presented to the council at a later date and then voted on at an upcoming regular council session.