Charlevoix officials have an ethical code of conduct
CHARLEVOIX — With revelations in the media about the conduct of some public officials, local voters and taxpayers have become increasingly interested in appropriate standards of conduct for government officials.
In response, some Michigan local governments have voluntarily adopted ethics codes that focus on various aspects of the conduct of those entrusted with the public’s business.
Although there are two state laws pertaining to the ethical conduct of Michigan local government officials (the State Ethics Act, and Public Act 17, dealing with public contracts), a portion of municipalities in Northern Michigan — including Charlevoix, Harbor Springs and Petoskey — have chosen to also voluntarily adopt a local ethics code to tailor additional standards that fit local needs and expectations.
“Charter commissions, authorized to draft or to revise the charter of a local government, often wonder whether to include ethics provisions, and how far to go in mandating adoption of an ethics code or ethical conduct,” said William L. Steude, former general counsel to the Michigan Municipal League, when giving advice to local commissions on whether or not to create ethics standards.
More: Charlevoix council approves ethics policy
Charlevoix’s city council began developing an ethical code of conduct in 2017. After much debate among the council members regarding scope, and a tie vote causing everyone to go back to the drawing board, a final draft was approved in June 2018. “The Ethical Code of Conduct” and can be found in Chapter 36 of the city code, which can be accessed at www.charlevoixmi.gov.
Charlevoix’s ethical code is brief and leaves room for interpretation. After a year of debate, the version approved by the council consists of only four sentences:
(A) The citizens of the city are entitled to have fair, ethical and accountable local government that has earned the public's full confidence for integrity.
(B) Furthermore, the effective functioning of democratic government requires that public officials, both elected and appointed, comply with both the letter and spirit of the laws and policies affecting the operations of government; public officials be independent, impartial and fair in their judgment and actions; public office be used for the public good, not for personal gain; and public deliberations and processes be conducted openly, unless legally confidential, in an atmosphere of respect and civility.
(C) To this end, the City Council adopts this chapter to assure public confidence in the integrity of local government and its effective and fair operation. Serving in local government is the holding of public trust. This trust should never be undermined.
(D) In all actions, employees, the City Manager, and City Council members will adhere to all local, state and federal laws regulating ethical action. Various professional codes of ethics and other similar documents may be used to supplement determinations of ethical conduct.
“Ethical administration of government invites the citizen’s confidence in, and respect for, government,” said Daniel C. Matson, chair of The Ethics Roundtable.
However, Maton acknowledges there is disagreement about what the word "ethics" really means.
"What a carefully crafted and defined ethics code or ordinance can do is to establish behavioral standards of integrity, fair dealing, responsibility, accountability, and disinterested conduct which are not specifically covered by existing laws, but which are an essential part of the fiduciary duty (the highest standard of conduct) which is almost universally recognized in this country as being owed to the public by its public servants and officials," said Matson.
According to a report from the National Conference of State Legislatures, legislators, public employees, and other public servants may face severe consequences for violating the public trust. The range of penalties includes censure, removal from office, permanent disqualification from holding any state position, restitution, decades in prison, and fines up into the hundreds of thousands of dollars.
Not all ethics violations are treated equally. Punishments correspond to how badly an instance of misconduct is viewed in the eyes of the state and in consideration of the harm a violation may cause, reports the the National Conference. The most severe consequences are normally reserved for cases of bribery involving large sums or similar types of intentional violations of ethics or anti-corruption laws.
The criminal justice process works separately from commissions and committees to impose punishments for wrongdoing. Each may discipline violators of ethics laws using criminal or administrative penalties, respectively, independently and concurrently, depending on the law violated.
In regard to Charlevoix City Council members, if an ethics violation is proven the other council members can create a recommendation for that official to step down from office — but this only serves as a public censure. According to Charlevoix City Manager Mark Heydlauff, the only way for an elected official to be removed from office is via a voter-initiated recall or a voluntary resignation of the accused elected official.
The ethical conduct section of Chapter 36 in the city code is followed by a section on conflicts of interest (chapter 36.2). This portion is more detailed, encompassing a page and a half of definitions and more specific parameters. A conflict of interest is defined as a situation that, "May occur when action by the city, either through its employees, its boards, committees, commissions or other such bodies, or the City Council, could be construed as impacting negatively or positively an interest of an employee or Council Member, his or her relatives, business or financial investments, property, or other interests."
This definition applies to a council member's "immediate family" which is defined in the code as, "The spouse, child, parents, brother, sister, half-sister, half-brother or the spouses of any listed relatives. All relationships shall include those arising from adoption and marriage."
Instructions are given for reporting a possible conflict of interest; the code states council members or the mayor "shall make known the potential conflict in open session when City Council business might involve such interest."
In addition to the general rule on conflicts of interest above, there are specific conflicts of interests that are prohibited in the code including voting involving a conflict of interest. The code states: "No member of the Council shall vote on any question in which he, she or a member of their immediate family as defined in this chapter, has a financial interest, other than the common public interest, or on any question concerning his or her own conduct. Council Members who may have a financial interest shall state such interest and then refrain from debating, commenting, or otherwise seeking to influence the Council on such question."
The code also states, "If a member of City Council believes that another member of City Council has a conflict, he or she shall raise such perceived conflict. If the member in question does not concede a conflict, the majority of the remaining Council Members may vote to prohibit that Council Member or the Mayor who may have a conflict from participating in that item of business. The Council shall solely be the judge of its own members and the Mayor."
This article originally appeared on The Petoskey News-Review: Charlevoix officials have an ethical code of conduct