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Ethics In Local Government: A Case For Higher Standards In Heber

Over the recent months, the city council has been considering three critical pieces of legislation relating to ethics and conflicts of interest for public employees, government officials, and committee and board members. These proposed codes are designed to help public employees and officials understand what is required of them as representatives of the city, and they set the standards for them to follow. The conflict of interest laws of the state and the newly proposed policies of the city are founded upon state codes and best practices of other cites that have implemented similar policies. These proposed policies are based on the belief that government officials, both elected and appointed, owe paramount loyalty to the public; and that personal or private financial gain in any form should not influence the fulfillment of public duties.

As a member of the city council, I have witnessed certain public officials make decisions that were in opposition to state codes and contrary to the best interests of Heber City. These officials participated in discussions on important issues and then voted to approve items which would benefit their own personal interests.

Another example occurred when a certain member of the city council engaged in unsubstantiated personal attacks upon the character and motives of the other members of the city council. This council member's actions were in direct violation of the State Code of Ethics. Based upon these two examples alone, it has become clear that our city needs a formal written policy regarding conflicts of interest and ethics.

I spoke with Mayor Dave Phillips in December of last year concerning conflicts of interest and ethical behavior in December of last year. In this conversation, we both agreed that such violations should be discussed with the City Council in order to prevent future abuses. Mayor Phillips informed me that he desired to personally address the City Council in the January City Council Meeting concerning conflicts of interest, codes of conduct and ethical behavior. I asked the Mayor if I might be allowed to proceed, with the ideas we had discussed, and draft legislation for the city that we might present together.

Mayor Philips stated he would be happy to work with me on this project. He asserted that the Utah State Code had a section regarding disclosure of conflicts of interest. He affirmed that City Councilmen and city employees should formally inform the city administration of any conflicts of interest that may affect their public duties. The mayor stated, "I am very supportive of pushing for decency and civility on the council as we work together to get business of the city done these next few years. People can have difference [sic.] of opinions, including the mayor and council, city manager and staff, but we ought to be able to express it in a civil way and act like gentlemen and the elected officials we are."

The mayor and I both felt that basic expectations of conduct and ethics were not being adhered to by some public officials, employees, and board members. In January, the mayor addressed the city council as he had promised and spoke of the concerns we had previously discussed in December. He gave his full support for my proposal of this legislation by informing the council that he had read over the policies that I had proposed and stated that there were some good items in these policies that stressed integrity and honesty. He confirmed that these were excellent codes to live by.

I had several goals in mind while drafting this new code. Effective codes are living, breathing guidelines, implemented with clear, useful policies and procedures. They become the cornerstone of ethical government and should never be waived. If such codes are never explained and are simply written and posted on a wall, or stuffed in a drawer, they may only create contempt and cynicism among employees.

While researching state codes and the policies other government agencies have implemented, it became apparent that no written policy can define all conflicts of interest or ethics violations so exactly as to forbid all conflicts of interest. It was not my intent to write such a policy, rather I intended on writing a policy that would limit such undesirable relationships within the local government as much as possible. My research also made it clear that a good conflict of interest policy and code of ethics should have at least these basic goals and principles to achieve their purpose.

  1. A good conflict of interest policy and code of ethics should establish a set of standards of conduct and behavior and require that actual or potential conflicts of interest between personal and public duties be disclosed.
  2. The policy should make clear to the public and board members that conflicts of interest must be disclosed and managed, as well as prohibited when appropriate.
  3. The citizens and businesses of a community are entitled to responsible, fair, honest and accountable local government.
  4. The policy should raise board members' awareness of the possible existence of conflicts of interest and violations of codes of conduct. 
  5. A good conflict of interest policy should educate board members on the types of relationships and situations that might give rise to conflicts of interest. Because the city does not have a formal conflict of interest policy or a code of ethics, board and committee members are not be trained or being currently informed of the possible conflicts that may arise due to their involvement in city government. The potential for conflict of interest situations to arise is extensive, applying particularly but not exclusively to the exploitation of property, information, or opportunities, regardless of whether or not the board member takes advantage of it. Board members should familiarize themselves with the key features of state law and city's policies.
  6. A good policy should remind board members of the broader interests of the city and the need to protect its reputation and its assets. They should avoid actions that are inconsistent with the best interests of the city. Their choices should not be based on any private or personal interest. They must endeavor to treat all persons, claims, and transactions in a fair and equitable manner.If someone can personally benefit from a decision or use their position for the purpose of rewarding themselves or another person from their official actions, then they should be aware that this is a conflict of interest. 
  7. The policy must establish a regular process to follow when a conflict of interest or potential conflicts arise.
  8. A good policy should require that public officials avoid situations in which they do or may have, a direct or indirect interest that conflicts with or may conflict with the city's best interest. This conflict of interest needs to be disclosed and/or the board or council member needs to remove themselves from the discussion and decision. 

These points were mostly derived from the best practices of other government bodies, and they are what motivated the policy I have proposed to the City Council. This policy has been reviewed by many people, including the City Council, the Mayor, the city attorney, and City Manager, and I have been interested to see which points have become the focus of attention by the various parties. Specifically, I have been most interested to hear certain public officials complain that the proposed standards were too restrictive and that these policies required a higher standard than they desired to adhere to.
 
I have been very disappointed by this minimum standard sort of conversation. I had hoped that the discussion amongst the leadership of our city would be rooted in the high expectations that the public wants and expects from them. I sincerely believe that good leaders generally aspire to higher standards, and when certain members of our local government opted to discuss the minimum standard set by the state I was truly disheartened.

I realize that these policies are not perfect and that they are not intended to represent my ideas alone. However, it is important to remember that the state has established minimum standards to merely prevent the most destructive scenarios. I feel that Heber should demand more from our public officials and employees than the minimum required by the state. Our city is not a 'bare minimum' kind of city; and our city leadership should be the first to require exceptionally high standards.

While government should not over regulate or restrict individuals or the private sector, it is important for government to tightly regulate itself. There should be very clear restrictions and regulations on what government officials can and cannot do.

I energetically advocated for higher standards to prevail in these new policies. Despite my objections, some of the higher standards that I had intentionally included due to their success with other government agencies, were removed from the proposed policies.

The new conflict of interest policy for employees went through a review of the city council and was accepted by the council. The city manager then asked that it be sent to the Personnel Committee to be reviewed. The Personnel Committee is made up of two city council members and city employees. Unfortunately, the Personnel Committee members felt that the newly revised conflict of interest policy for city employees was not needed at all and consequently at this time the policy stands on the edge of being rejected. Members of the personnel committee complained that such detailed policies were too restrictive, unnecessary, and not applicable to them.

Regardless of the conclusion of the Personnel Committee, our local government history and current events have demonstrated that such policies are indeed necessary. The standards set by these policies would act as a safeguard against corruption and would help us to regain the confidence of the public. Anyone can make a bad decision. It is important to recognize that pressure is a "major determinant of honesty." The influence of a superior, competition, and self-interest can affect a person's level of honesty. History sadly shows that such pressures can edge people toward crossing the lines of what is legal and what is ethical. Integrity begins with being honest about dishonesty.

The city administration (the Mayor and City Manager), armed with sound policies, should determine whether or not an employee's behavior is ethical or may be considered a conflict of interest; employees themselves should not be left to determine this. These policies were not designed to punish or create fear, but rather to set a clear standard that employees may safely follow. This policy was intended to educate employees regarding the standards of ethical behavior and proper conduct so that employees know what is expected of them. It was designed to build honesty and integrity in the public system and with the employees.

Our Mayor and the City Council should have led the way and set an example of high morals and standards with their own words and behavior regarding the policies that relate to public officials. Nevertheless, because of the hesitancy of some members of the City Council to live by a higher standard of moral conduct, the Conflicts of Interest policy for Public Officials has been watered down to the minimum state requirements. It has been diluted to the point where most of the conflicts that were originally prohibited or that required removal of the person in question from the issues have been left to prohibition or removal on a voluntary basis.

I have included a link to a copy of the original documents and policies I presented to the city council below prior to their revision. If the city council decides to adopt a conflict of interest policy for public officials and employees, I will post any modifications made.

The Code of Conduct and Ethics policy so far remains in its original form. This is on schedule to be on the April 5th city council meeting for adoption.

If you have any concerns or comments on these policies please send them to me.

alwmcdonald (at) yahoo.com


BY HEBER CITY COUNCILMAN ALAN MCDONALD   03/26/2012



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