Sanctions for commissioners’ ‘code of ethics’ violations discussed

At the January Town Board meeting, Commissioner Marc Hehn, after alluding to a verbal run-in with another commissioner, asked for information about the town’s Code of Ethics, indeed if the town had such a code.

After learning that the town did have a Code of Ethics which was adopted Dec. 1, 2010, he requested a copy so he could read it and decide if a violation had transpired during the interaction. He also asked to discuss the matter with the police chief.

Since he wouldn’t disclose the commissioner, Mayor Pat Taylor did as Donnie Calloway, saying everyone knew, and there were different views as to what transpired. In addition he said, “An intense discussion doesn’t rise to a criminal act requiring police involvement.”

Nothing else has been said about the issue, but at the February Town Board meeting, the town’s Code of Ethics was presented in the agenda packet.

Regarding the code, Town Attorney J.K. Coward suggested that sanctions be attached to it because he said, “as in the jurisprudential arena, laws without sanctions are just suggestions.”

He also addressed the recent incident where information discussed during the December Town Board closed session meeting concerning the town’s Request for Proposal (RFP) for its broadband highway was released and misrepresented to NC Broadband Group. It was one of three entities originally interested in running the “highway” but who withdrew its RFP in November prior to the town’s ultimate decision to enter contract negotiations with Hotwire Communications.

The information from the closed session, which was described erroneously and discussed with NC Broadband Group, was then the subject of a letter sent to the town by NC Broadband alleging illegal practices.

As he said in a January letter to the board and reiterated Thursday night, “nothing in a closed session is supposed to be made public, otherwise why have a closed session?”

Previously, Coward said as per the definition of a closed session and the purpose thereof, a board member who is privy to closed session information is not at liberty to divulge it to the public.

Commissioner Calloway said he wanted to discuss repercussions concerning the compromise of December’s closed session, “instead of it just floating out there.”

Meanwhile, to comply with NC Open Meetings Laws and NC General Statutes, several closed session minutes from previous meetings were reviewed and approved in the February closed session which had been added to the agenda. 

During the closed session, Mayor Taylor said the board considered Attorney Coward’s suggestion about sanctions for illegally divulging closed session discussions to the public. It reads as follows:

“Town Board members shall not disclose the content of things discussed in a legally called closed session to any person not in attendance at that session, unless authorized by the Board or ordered by court to do so. Failure by the member to abide by this provision shall subject the member to censure.”

Censure is a formal, and public, group condemnation of an individual, often a group member, whose actions run counter to the group’s acceptable standards for individual behavior. Like a reprimand, a censure does not remove a member from their office, so they retain their title, stature, and power to vote.

Mayor Taylor said Coward’s sanction suggestion would be considered at the March Town Board meeting along with sanctions concerning other Code of Ethics infractions. 

The town’s Code of Ethics:

As outlined, the purpose of a code of ethics is to establish guidelines for ethical standards of conduct for board members and to provide guidance in determining what conduct Is appropriate in particular cases. It should not be considered a substitute for the law or for a board member’s best judgment.

Section 1. Board members should take care to obey all laws that apply to their official actions as board members. Board members should be guided by the spirit as well as the letter of the law.

At the same time, board members should feel free to assert policy positions and opinions without fear of reprisal from fellow board members or citizens. To assert that a board member is behaving unethically based upon a disagreement with that board member based on a question of policy (and not on the board member’s ethical behavior) is unfair, dishonest, irresponsible; and itself unethical.

The board shall endeavor to keep itself up to date, through Its attorney or other sources, of new or on-going legal or ethical quandaries or difficulties that they may face in their official positions.

Section 2. Board members should act with Integrity and with independence from Improper Influence as they exercise the functions of their offices.

Board members should use their best Independent judgment to pursue the common good as they see it, presenting their opinions to all in a reasonable, forthright, consistent manner. They should be self-governing and not subject to improper influence, while at the same time being able to consider the opinions and ideas of others.

At the same time, however, board members should recognize that they are part of a larger group and should act accordingly. They should respect their office and not behave in ways that reflect badly on it. They should treat other board members and the public with respect and should honor the opinions of others even when they disagree. They should recognize that they are not generally authorized to act on behalf of the board, since the board must take official action as a body.

Section 3. Board members should avoid impropriety in the exercise of their official duties. Their official actions should be above reproach. A board member is considered to be acting with impropriety if a reasonable person who was made aware of the totality of the circumstances surrounding the board member’s action would conclude that it was more likely than not that the behavior did not befit someone in the board member’s position.

If a board member concludes that his or her actions, while legal and ethical, may be misunderstood, he or she may seek the advice of the board’s attorney. He or she may also state on the record the facts of the situation and the steps taken to resolve it.

Section 4, Board members of local governing boards should be faithful in the performance of the duties of their offices. They should act as the especially responsible citizens whom others can trust and respect.

Board members should be faithful in their attendance at meetings and in their preparation for those meetings. They should carefully analyze all credible information that is provided to them. As a group of citizens to whom much has been entrusted, the board should demand full accountability from those over whom it has authority. The board should set a good example for others in the community, keeping in mind that trust and respect must continually be earned.

Board members should be willing to bear their fair share of the board’s workload. To the extent appropriate, they should be willing to put the board’s interests ahead of their own.

Section 5. Board members of local governing boards should conduct the affairs of their boards in an open and public manner. They should comply with all applicable laws governing open meetings and public records, recognizing that doing so is an important way to be worthy of the public’s trust. This recognition includes sensitivity to those matters recognized by law. The board should remember when meeting that they are conducting the public’s business. They should also remember that the records of their local government belong to the public and not to them or their employees. They should make clear that a climate of openness is to be maintained at all times in their governmental units.

To ensure strict compliance with the laws governing openness, governing board members should strive to be open. They should prohibit unjustified delay in fulfilling public records requests. They should take deliberate steps before they go into dosed session for any reason, to ensure that the closed session will be lawfully conducted and that such sessions do not stray from the purpose which they are called.

By Kim Lewicki, Highlands Newspaper

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