In the past decade there has been a major push among citizen groups across the country for an adoption or revision of a code of ethics for city employees and local governments, and Pueblo may be the next city to partake in the trend, if the Code of Ethics Task Force can get city council to approve a proposed updated code of ethics.
For the past few years Ted Freeman, a member of the Code of Ethics Task Force in Pueblo, has been working with a group on a total overhaul of the current code of ethics.
“My whole premise is that you can’t get anything if you don’t convince three others to vote with you,” Sandy Daff, Pueblo City Council
The current model, he says, doesn’t offer a system for complaints or allegations. If there is an ethical complaint against a city government employee or council member there is no way to handle or resolve it.
There’s also little standing in the way of conflicts of interest, Freeman said.
Currently, the code states that it does not constitute as a violation if a council member or city government employee “holds an interest in any business or undertaking which he or she has reason to believe may be directly and substantially affected to its economic benefit by official action to be taken by an agency, official or employee over which he or she has substantive authority.”
In other words, it’s completely okay for a city council member or city government employee to head up a non-profit, organization or business, which is benefitting from actions being made by that city council member or employee.
It’s also not in violation for an employee or council member to perform an act that directly or substantially affects a business or organization that member he or she has a major “financial interest in a competing firm or undertaking.”
City attorney Dan Kogovsek wouldn’t comment on the code without an okay from City Manager Sam Azad, who didn’t return calls or emails from the PULP.
But City Council President Sand Daff did. She is also employed by Neighborworks, which receives money from the city’s budget. Daff is Neighborworks’ executive director, and she sees her position on city council and job with Neighborworks as beneficial for the city.
“My whole premise is that you can’t get anything if you don’t convince three others to vote with you,” Daff said. To her the idea that one city council member could take advantage of the current models wording isn’t merited.
Additionally, she said she feels it’s important for city officials to be involved in the community, and working for a local non-profit allows for that.
“I don’t want there to be a perception the ‘good ol’ boys’ system is alive and well, because it’s not. I want people who are engaged in their community in government,” Daff said.
She added that she believed many city council members recuse themselves from an issue if they feel there is a conflict of interest. And, additionally, gifts just aren’t a regular occurrence.
Even if these were violations, there isn’t a system to resolve them, and for an avid city council meeting attendee, as Freeman is, this is troublesome.
Freeman said over the years he has witnessed a lot of unethical behavior, mainly in the form of conflicts of interest.
“A lot of corruption happening is technically legal,” Carla Miller, Harvard’s Edmond J. Safra Center for Ethics
This seems to be the trend across the country, according to Carla Miller, a fellow at Harvard’s Edmond J. Safra Center for Ethics and founder of non-profit City Ethics, which offers online tools and resources for citizen groups looking to create or revamp ethic codes.
The type of corruption Miller said is most common in government, local and federal, is institutional corruption. It’s not the prison-bound, selling-senate-seats kind, it’s little acts such as abusing power by giving a friend a job or doing a favor for a local business.
“A lot of corruption happening is technically legal,” she said.
So, what started this increased awareness of ethical violations in local government?
“My guess would be that the awareness of this evolved from Corporate America putting more attention on ethics program post Enron,” Miller said. “Then, there were emerging standards for corporate ethics programs– like the national federal guidelines, Sarbanes Oxley. More business schools started ethics programs. There was a spillover effect with all this media and attention that citizens started demanding more ethics programs in government.”
For Freeman, the reasoning is simpler, “People have lost all faith in our government.”
And for some cities, such as Denver, city officials have come to the same conclusion. Denver’s code states that its purpose is to, “foster confidence in city government” and clarify what constitutes as a breach to the public’s trust.
Executive Director Michael Henry of the Denver Board of Ethics believes the code has served city employees and council members well. He said he receives a few hundred requests for unofficial advice per year, questions concerning gifts, trips or employment. There are around 30 official requests per year and 20 official complaints, which are usually discussed at montly meetings he said.
Denver is currently the only city with a paid staff member to deal with ethics issues. Most cities, such as Colorado Springs, use the city attorney to address ethics. Pueblo’s new model would also use the city attorney, according to Freeman.
Miller would say Denver’s model is the strongest, and Pueblo’s proposed code would land somewhere in the middle. Freeman and Inge Burbank, a member of the Pueblo Code of Ethics Task Force, established the proposed model from Centennial’s code of ethics.
The strongest ethics codes have a separate task force, don’t utilize the city attorney and aren’t copied from another city, Miller said. Using another city’s code of ethics tends to be the weakest model.
“We went line by line and modified it (Centennial’s code) to Pueblo,” Burbank said. “After each task force member reviewed codes from throughout the state, many of them heavy in legalese, we agreed that Centennial’s was most comprehensive. Perhaps more importantly, it was written clearly and concisely, so that both representatives and citizens could understand it, regardless of their educational level.”
But even using plain English in the code can’t eliminate every difficulty in revamping a code.
Kogovsek said at a July 21 city council work session that he had concerns that the proposed code doesn’t match up with the city’s charter, which has a lot to do with union negotiations. He cited several different ways the proposed code would violate the city’s charter, but the nitty-grittiness that comes along with Pueblo being a union town hasn’t deterred the task force.
Right now, Burbank and Freeman say they feel they are close to a final version of a proposal; the details just need fine tuning.
But the grey area in ethics is still a concern for many.
City Council President Sandy Daff said there is a lot of murky water when it comes to a code of ethics beyond getting the unions on board. And several city council members echoed that thought at the July 21 work session.
Would it be unethical to accept a box seat invitation to watch the Thunderwolves play by CSU-Pueblo President Lesley Di Mare, councilman Chris Kaufman asked, because it could be considered a gift worth more than $100, which is prohibited in the new code.
“I thought, gosh, I’ll never go out to eat in this town again,” Daff joked.
However, Daff added that she really did see a need for an improvement.
“I agree that it needs to be beefed up, and there needs to be a complaint process, and we need to be more clear that there is a remedy when citizens believe there has been a breach,” Daff said.