Council talks ethics and charter amendments in work session

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by A.C. Hall

At a work session this week, the White Settlement City Council spoke about two items that have come up in 2015.  First up was a new ethics policy that was put on hold earlier this year.  Mayor Ronald A. White opened the discussion, saying there are ethics guidelines in the city charter and another ethics policy in place, making this third one redundant.  
“Personally, I don’t think we need the third ethics policy,” Mayor White said.  “Between the resolution and the City Charter there’s enough of an ethics policy for the Mayor and City Council.”
He went on to call the third ethics policy a waste of time.
“I feel the same way,” council member Danny Anderson said.
Anderson spoke about the ways ethics policies can be misused and treated as a political weapon by council members trying to get each other removed.
“An elected official is elected by the citizens and he’s there because they want him there,” Anderson said.  “This needs to be one team, everybody working together.  We need to stop playing politics against one another and look out for the city.”
Expanding on this, Anderson said the charter contains guidelines for removing a council member and that citizens can recall elected officials.  He suggested taking the existing ethics guidelines that lay out the job descriptions and responsibilities for the mayor and council and adding them into the charter, then doing away with the third ethics document before the council.
Council member Steve Ott got involved in the discussion next, expressing his desire for a policy that does a little more than the two Anderson was speaking about.
“Every group should have a code of conduct they abide by,” Ott said.
Ott said the current ethics guidelines need to be strengthened when it comes to penalties for council members who break the rules.
“I’m not gonna go with something that removes an elected official,” Anderson said.
Responding to this, Ott spoke about the limited removal powers the charter has for ethics violations, saying it only applies if a serious crime is committed or if the council member misses too many meetings.
“What if you had a councilman that sits up here and just constantly lies to the people and the council and the staff and everything else?” Ott asked.  “Under this (the current ethics regulations), you can’t do anything about it.”
Mayor White stated that he saw the point Ott was making.  Anderson expressed continued concern, saying he didn’t want to go back to the council being the judge and jury of themselves.
“It’s a sticky situation either way you go,” Mayor White said.
As discussion on this item came to a close, council appeared to come to a reluctant agreement to do away with the third ethics policy and work to combine and strengthen the two existing ones. With no action item on the agenda, no official action was taken on this issue.
Moving on to the charter discussions, Mayor White said City Secretary Amy Arnold has been hard at work and has discovered several issues in the charter that need to be changed.  Arnold spoke about these issues, all of them based around wording and language that needs to be cleaned up or clarified in order to come into compliance with state law.  These basic items should be ready to be added to the upcoming November election.  Along with the combination of the city’s two ethics policies, the non compliant items would appear as charter amendments on the ballot that citizens would vote on.
With these issues taken care of, the possibility of convening a charter review committee to see what else needs to be changed in the charter was discussed.  Since a charter amendment election can be held only every two years, it would not be until 2017 that the recommendations of a committee could make it on the ballot.  With that in mind, several on the council suggested waiting until February of next year to work on putting together a charter review committee.
Ott suggested they start sooner so the committee has plenty of time.  As council spoke about the makeup of a potential committee, they appeared to settle on a nine person group.  The committee would be made up of three city staff members, four citizens, and two council members.  The council members would be chosen at random.
There was some talk about the city looking for volunteers soon, but it was unclear when the charter review committee process will actually get underway.
Before the meeting got started, council member Mike Arnold spoke briefly.  Arnold apologized for missing several recent meetings while he was in and out of the hospital.  He thanked all of those who sent him cards and well wishes while he was ill.