The Gazette Editorial Board
Business connections. Many elected officials, including those in Cedar Rapids, have them, either as current or former business owners or employees. And those experiences and relationships certainly can be valuable in serving as community leaders and policy makers.
Those connections also can create the potential of conflicts of interests that are not in the public’s best interest or, at the least, raise the specter of abuse of office and diminish public trust.
Back in 2005, the Cedar Rapids Home Rule Charter Commission — which created a charter document for the city’s change of government from a council of full-time commissioners to a part-time city council — authorized a board of ethics. It was tasked with resolving conflicts of interest and other ethics issues. Supporters on the Charter Commission expected more such issues to arise with a part-time council whose members likely would have day jobs or businesses to run, and they wanted a mechanism to resolve them more quickly than the state ethics board likely would be able.
Voters approved the charter, and the new City Council approved an ordinance governing the ethics board in spring 2007. It’s still the only such municipal ethics board in Iowa, and we think it’s good to have one.
Its five members are unpaid volunteers appointed by the mayor and approved by the City Council. They cannot hold elective or other appointed office anywhere, nor any political party position, while serving. It has no financial budget.
After nearly seven years of operation, the ethics board has made valuable contributions toward accountable city government and better understanding of ethical issues. We also think there’s room for improvements that would make this board even more responsive to residents’ concerns and build public trust in local leadership.
The ethics board’s stated duties are:
l Administer and enforce the city’s conflict of interest and financial disclosure ordinances.
l Issue binding advisory opinions, conduct its own investigations, impose fines (none so far), request assistance from the city attorney or hire independent counsel.
l Conduct hearings to gather information and also make recommendations on city policies and practices to improve the ethical environment.
Ethics board chair Bob Teig, who, along with veteran board member Bill Vincent, met with us recently, also said that education and ethics training of elected city officials and department is an important part of the board’s mission and they want to expand their efforts. Good to hear.
We think the board’s most notable achievements so far include issuing advisory opinions to resolve conflict of interest questions regarding business connections. A couple of them in particular are instructive.
One involved Dan Thies, an Eastern Iowa Airport commissioner and principal in OPN Architects. He wanted to represent his firm in front of another city agency.
The ethics board’s advisory opinion issued in 2009 by then-chair Judith Whetstine laid a base for all such situations involving elected officials or members of city boards and commissions:
l Disclose to the city agency that you are a principal of OPN Architects.
l Disclose to the city agency that you are an airport commissioner.
l State, based upon your understanding of the project or matter pending before the city
agency, that there is no connection with, or impact upon, the airport
and the airport commission and that you are appearing before the city agency solely
in a personal capacity and not in your capacity as an airport commissioner in any
l State that the city agency should not consider your position with the airport
commission as relevant in connection with your appearance before the agency; and
l Ensure that your disclosure is documented in some manner as part of the official
record of the city agency.
All of which honors public transparency in those situations.
CASES RAISE QUESTIONS
Another advisory opinion later in 2009 addressed a different case involving two city council members, Pat Shey and Tom Podzimek, who at the time jointly owned a contracting business and, to their credit, requested an ethics board opinion. The board found they had appropriately had recused themselves from discussing and voting in public on the Bottleworks condominium project, which eventually received some tax incentives from the city. Shea and Podzimek later secured work as a subcontractor with that project while they were still on the council. The ethics board decided that, based on the city ordinance, there was no conflict of interest.
While there is nothing wrong with an elected official running a business while in office, we think that case is one that illustrates where the ethics board’s reach falls short — the appearance of a conflict of interest is also important to public perception and trust in government.
Consider another example. Former city council member Chuck Swore owns a consulting business. The City Council, including Swore at that time, unanimously voted to award Miron Construction the convention center’s general construction contract in 2011. Swore contracted with Miron a few months later.
Conflict of interest? Apparently not, according to the present ordinance.
Let’s face it. Business contacts and proposals happen outside of council chambers and meetings. And when any elected official winds up doing business with a company that lands a city contract to do the public’s business, it’s not surprising that some residents may be suspicious of the deal. They may wonder if that elected official has used his or her office for private gain, which is explicitly prohibited in the Cedar Rapids ordinance.
CHANGES TO CONSIDER
Toward addressing that concern and others, we think the City Council should consider the following changes we believe would improve the effectiveness of the ethics board:
l Prohibit elected officials from doing business with any company securing work on a city project for the length of that project.
l Ideally, the ethics board should be independent, as are some others around the country. This board’s role in city government is unique — it should be a watchdog, working to make sure public officials understand the ethics ordinance and follow it. In Atlanta, for example, board members are selected by business, civic and education groups — not the city council or mayor.
However, such a change here likely requires a change in the city’s charter. That can’t be done until 2021, the first time a City Charter Review Commission legally can convene to consider amendments. Meantime, could a “hybrid” could be considered; that is, could the ethics board also include members nominated by organizations outside of city government?
l In line with the goal of an independent board, the city attorney’s office, which advises the City Council, generally should not advise the ethics board. Instead, use outside counsel.
The City Council’s new liaison to the ethics board, recently elected at-large council member Ralph Russell, hasn’t had much time to get up to speed on the board and ordinance, and said he isn’t ready to make any recommendations. However, he told us, “I think there’s a lot of good this board has done and can do. It’s important that we have a group to take issues to if anyone thinks there’s a conflict of interest situation. We need to answer to the citizens.”
We agree. The ethics board’s primary role is to serve citizens. Their input should be welcomed and the board should take care not to dismiss their complaints before giving them full consideration, perhaps first in informal discussion to help determine whether filing a formal complaint is justified. The board of ethics also should have enough authority, independence and resources to follow up on their concerns.
We’ve got a good thing started here. Now let’s make it a model for cities everywhere.
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