A Code of Ethics is Vital for Honest Government
When allegations of corruption hit the El Paso County Commissioners Court in 2008, El Paso attorneys wanted a way to fight back. Current laws, though, gave them few options to battle the scandal.
Attorneys wanted something more, something with bite, not just bark.
El Paso County Attorney Jose Rodriguez and his assistants helped State Sen. Eliot Shapleigh draft SB 1368, which along with Rep. Marisa Marquez’ companion HB 2301, set civil penalties, including fines of up to $4,000, for ethics violations. The law, which goes into effect Sept. 1, 2009, also provides protection for whistleblowers.
The legislation, which applies specifically to El Paso County, also provides a template for other counties to draft and enforce their own ethics codes. Josefina Brostrom, assistant El Paso County attorney said cities have long had the power to do that, but counties have not.
“The concern was that there had to have been someone who knew something corrupt was going on, but that someone was likely afraid to come forward,” says Brostrom. “And we also had a concern that a false and malicious complaint could be used to smear someone before it was uncovered that it wasn’t true.”
Other protections require confidentiality of investigations and provide punitive measures for anyone who brings a false charge. Violations of confidentiality could be punished by fines and up to three months in jail.
How It’s Done
El Paso County first implemented a Code of Ethics in 2002 after charges of nepotism in county hiring. It was revised in 2006, but didn’t have penalties until the new legislation passed. It creates a county ethics commission with the power to penalize wrongdoers, replacing the county’s ethics board, which could merely censure offenders.
The new 10-member commission will meet monthly and advise the Commissioners Court, report on compliance and disseminate information about the code to promote ethical conduct.
Each commissioner and the County Judge appoints one board member. Four members of the public are selected by the board after an open application and screening process.
Reaping the Benefits
The new El Paso County Code of Ethics has two primary benefits, proponents say.
All county employees are now pledged to follow the code. Previously, adherence was only mandatory for the commissioners and county judge, and other elected county officials could voluntarily sign pledges to abide by it.
The code also allows the public to have more awareness and higher expectations of county officials.
“We have an unwavering commitment to truth and honesty, which is important to have in county government,” says Kristine Moore, board chairwoman.
Developing a Code
How to initiate, plan and enact a code of ethics in your city or county:
- Get buy-in. Share the idea with other members on the local governing body.
- Create a committee to formulate code. The members review code from other governing bodies and decide what rules should be adopted and how they will be enforced by a voluntary board of ethics.
- Hold public hearings. Let the public see the plan and provide feedback and input.
- Get approval. Put it before the appropriate governing body.
- Appoint a board of ethics. The board will be in charge of administering and enforcing the code.
- Train the employees. Making it clear what is and isn’t allowed is vital to the program’s success.
- Keep the public involved. Transparency is key. Place all information, notices, forms and actions on the governing body’s Web site, making access to them as easy as possible.
Issues to Address
An ethics code for elected and appointed government officials and employees typically addresses these issues:
- Conflicts of interest.
- Voting on zoning issues that affect the official’s property.
- Financial disclosure requirements.
- Outside income and employment.
- Representation of outside interest before a board, commission or governing body.
- Post-employment restrictions.
- Lobbying restrictions.
- Procurement or contract procedures.
- Receipt of gifts or other benefits.