City engages in ethical dilemma

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by A.C. Hall

Last Tuesday, the White Settlement City Council voted 3 to 1 to move forward with an ethics investigation into an alleged ethics violation by council member Elzie Clements.  In the motion, council named themselves as the Ethics Review Commission that will oversee the matter.  Council members Steve Ott, Mike Arnold, and Gene Hatcher voted in favor of the motion, with Danny Anderson voting against.  Clements abstained from the vote.  

City Attorney Warren Spencer will act as the investigator for the Commission.  Following up on his findings, a preliminary hearing will be held.  The exact date of the preliminary hearing has not yet been made available but according to one source the hearing could be held as early as next Tuesday.  Evidence will be presented at the hearing, and both the complainants and Clements will be allowed to give testimony.  After this, the commission will decide if enough evidence exists to move forward to a final hearing, if the violation should be referred to law enforcement authorities, or if the violation should be referred to the City Council.

If a majority of those on the Commission believe the alleged violation occurred, they have five levels of possible sanctions at their disposal.  Level one consists of a letter of notification being sent to the city official who was found guilty, directing them of steps to follow to avoid future violations.  Level two is a letter of admonition, which still consists mainly of a letter that would be sent to the guilty official.  The level three sanction would see a reprimand sent to the official and also published in the official newspapers of the City.

If the commission believes the violation to merit more severe punishment, they can refer the matter to council for a possible higher level sanction.  The level four sanction would be a suspension.  The Code of Ethics does not give details on the length of suspensions that could be handed out.

A level five sanction would be removal from office.  This sanction is set to be appropriate only if the city official is found guilty by a court of law in any criminal matter or if the official has received a prior level four sanction and additional complaints have been filed that indicate the violations have continued.

One serious question facing this process is if the council members can sit in unbiased judgment against their colleague in this matter.  Clements has had verbal altercations with both Hatcher and Arnold in the past and maintains a friendship with Anderson.  This clearly establishes existing relationships that could factor into the decision making process of the ethics review.

Anderson is the sole council member to vote against this process, and he stated on Monday that he definitely feels the council can’t be unbiased in this matter.  Anderson’s concerns over the code of ethics and the Ethics Review Commission go all the way back to January 8 of 2013, where he spoke out against it.  He voiced several problems with the document including his belief that it could further divide the city and be used as a political weapon between council members that don’t see eye to eye.  Anderson eventually made a motion to place a six month moratorium on the document, saying it needed to be fine tuned.  Three of the four remaining council members agreed with him, with all members but Arnold voting in favor of the moratorium.  The six month moratorium came and went with no changes being made to the document.

Speaking to The Grizzly Detail on Monday, Anderson said his old concerns over the document still hold.  He called attention to the vagueness of certain parts of the document including the lack of any terms to how suspensions of council members are handled and how long they could last.  Anderson said this vagueness in that area means council could potentially suspend someone for the entirety of their term on the council.

“None of this makes sense,” Anderson said.

He also referenced the last time council tried to sit in judgment against one of their own members, as a proposed tribunal against former council member John Giddens in 2010 led to a months long freeze in council and an eventual court case.  Anderson believes the same is happening again, saying the charges against Clements have more to do with political maneuvering than anything else.

Anderson agreed that existing alliances and biases between council members would make it impossible for Clements to get a fair hearing, but said appointing citizens to the Ethics Review Commission wouldn’t work either.    “It’s a fixed race either way, they appoint the members so they’ll just appoint people who agree with them,” Anderson said.

Clements himself raised concerns back in 2012 when the Code of Ethics was first introduced.  Clements voted against putting the document in place, voicing his belief that citizens elect council members and it should be up to citizens to remove them.

Anderson shared a similar sentiment on Monday, saying that the City’s code of ethics doesn’t need to exist.  He referenced existing avenues council members have to deal with ethics issues as well as recall votes as ways ethics violations can be dealt with.

Those fearing that this issue could splinter a council that has managed to get along and get business done for the past year may find those fears realized, as Anderson indicated he’s preparing to file some ethics violations of his own against other council members.

“If they’re going to hold Elzie to the standards in this document then we should hold everyone to these standards,” Anderson said.

He stated that he believes his ethics complaints won’t be followed up on, saying he’s already been met with some push back from city hall as he tried to start the process of filing them.  Anderson said that if the council investigates the alleged Clements violation, but not the ones he’s prepared to file, it will prove that their case against Clements was politically motivated.

This potential civil war amongst council members couldn’t come at a worse time as the City prepares for the opening of Hawaiian Falls.  Anderson admitted it will be a black eye for the city and could hurt their chances of bringing in businesses if the council devolves into infighting.

A process for dealing with alleged ethics violations needs to exist, but the paradox facing the council is if they are able to be the ones to sit in unbiased judgment against one another.  If Clements is found guilty of an ethics violation, how many in the city will believe it was due to the facts versus the number who will believe it was due to existing biases council members have against him?  This presents the council with a potential lose/lose scenario, one none were willing to speak about on Monday.  Ott, who made the motion last week to move forward with the council acting as the Ethics Review Commission, stated that on advice of counsel he had no comment on the matter.

Mayor Jerry Burns voiced a similar sentiment in a brief phone call Monday evening, saying the facts will come out at the preliminary hearing and until that time he couldn’t comment since it’s an active investigation.

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