The Ethics Subcommittee of the City Council’s Rules Committee met on Feb. 11, the first of what will likely be three meetings. The plan is to report in April to the full Rules Committee with recommendations about updating or recasting the City’s Ethics Ordinance, last revised in 2007.
Three of the five members attended: First Ward Alderman Judy Fiske, Fourth Ward Alderman Don Wilson, and former Board of Ethics Chair Mark Sheldon. Second Ward Alderman Peter Braithwaite was out of town, and Sixth Ward Alderman Tom Suffredin – who was tending to a Ward issue – arrived after the hour-long meeting had ended.
City Manager Wally Bobkiewicz said the City has seen “more ethics issues in the last 18 months than in the last five years combined.” Similarly, said Deputy Corporation Counsel Mario Treto, “the Law Department has spent more time [on ethics issues] in the last several months than in the last five years.”
With three constituting a quorum, the committee members elected Ald. Wilson chair – pending Council approval – and approved a 30-minute time limit for public comment and a three-minute limit for any single speaker.
In conversation among themselves and with Mr. Treto and Mr. Bobkiewicz, the committee members reviewed a list of possible topics, transmitted with the charge to the subcommittee: use of profanity by members of the public and City Council members during public meetings; City Council Rules provisions related to the Mayor or aldermen voting on Ethics Code violations brought forth against an individual and considered by the Rules Committee or City Council; City payment of legal fees for the Mayor or Aldermen appearing before the Ethics Board; Board of Ethics staffing and the retention of outside counsel; creating two codes of ethics for elected officials and staff; and lobbying issues raised by residents.
In winnowing the suggested topics, committee members discussed language, impartiality, two sets of ethics ordinances and the use of outside counsel. Lobbying, they said, would not fall under the scope of the Ethics Ordinance.
Committee members discussed the concept of impartiality. “I was watching the Board of Ethics when they were struggling with ‘impartiality,’” said Ald. Fiske said. “Impartiality is certainly something we want our staff to be doing.”
Mr. Sheldon said, “Are we saying that aldermen may not have an issue with impartiality but our staff should be impartial?”
“We need to give the distinction between ethics and morality,” said Ald. Wilson. There are legal, ethical and moral distinctions, he added.
“So profanity may not be an ethical issue but it may be a moral issue,” said Mr. Sheldon.
Ald. Wilson said, “We don’t want to get into the trap of ‘moral issues.’”
Ms. Sheldon said the values aldermen bring to their job would be their “morals – and that’s for your election.”
Mr. Treto said some communities have two ethics codes – one of employees and one for elected officials. He added he would “advise against having the City Manager or Corporation Counsel on the Board of Ethics or on a subcommittee in order to avoid the appearance of a conflict of interest.
Most ethical complaints against employees, Mr. Bobkiewicz said, could be handled outside the Board of Ethics. “Individual complaints could be taken care of through administrative procedures. The City Manager would handle discipline.”
“If there is an ethical complaint against an alderman – I can’t advise [the Board of Ethics] against one of my clients,” Mr. Treto said. “I have to remove myself from issues applying ethics to cases at hand.”
Because Mr. Treto is now the legal advisor to the Board of Ethics, an alderman who is the subject of a complaint and wishes to be represented by a lawyer hires outside counsel at City expense. Mr. Treto said one way to reduce that expense would be to have the Ethics Board first conduct a jurisdictional hearing – to see if the complaint falls under the purview of the Ethics Board, obviating the need for outside counsel at the outset. If the Board finds it has jurisdiction over the complaint, the alderman could then hire outside counsel.
“I can see us spending a lot more time on the elected official aspect,” said Ald. Wilson. He said he Council could head off many complaints by answering questions or being more transparent. “A lot of it deals with public comments. As Council members we can deal with these things – questions not answered, lack of transparency – to avoid complaints,” he said.
The three committee members present asked Mr. Treto to draft two separate ordinances, one dealing with employees and one dealing with elected officials.
The next meeting is scheduled for 4:15 p.m. on either March 11 or March 13.