Missoula City Council takes up rewrite of dated ethics policy

A push to update the city’s code of ethics for elected officials and board members earned robust debate on Wednesday before it was “sent back to the kitchen for more cooking,” as one City Council member put it.

Members of the Administration and Finance Committee tabled the measure, introduced by council member Heather Harp, after the draft was unraveled by questions over organization, language and whether it was even necessary.

The city last updated its code of ethics 20 years ago, and Harp said the time had come to adopt a modern policy, especially as public trust over government wanes. She said the process would help build community trust, and that the draft would be open to constructive feedback from the public.

“Twenty years go by and frankly, with our natural turnover and our role, memories fade,” said Harp. “That institutional knowledge is kind of lost. We could do this alone, but a better method is actually to invite constructive comments from the very people who hold us accountable.”

Over the last year, members of an Ethics Advisory Committee have met to update the city policy. Harp, a member of the committee, brought the working draft to the floor on Wednesday, saying she wanted to give the council’s outgoing officials a chance to weigh in before new members of the council are seated.

But council member John DiBari, whose term ends this month, said he wasn’t aware of the rewrite.

“I didn’t even know this was going on, and I’m not sure anyone else did,” DiBari said. “I think it would have been way better to come before this body and ask if we knew there was a code of ethics and if we wanted to work on it. It certainly caught me off guard.”

The draft covers a number of subjects, from integrity to equity. It looks toward civility and respect, accountability and satisfactory attendance. One member of the City Council has been absent for much of the year, though Steve Johnson, director of Central Services for the city and a member of Ethics Advisory Committee, said the draft was not directed toward any single official.

“Often you will run into situations where there are conflicts,” said Johnson. “This policy language will hopefully provide you the tools to make those distinctions and decide what remedy is appropriate. When those moments do occur, we think you’ll be happy you have guidance you can use.”

The draft also looks to standards of conduct and means of enforcement, and what one called “thou shall” and “thou shall not.” It covers economic gain and avoiding the appearance of conflict by taking personal advantage of issues before the City Council.

But some of the language raised concerns among council members, who often have double duty – serving as an elected official while holding a regular job. The full meaning and ramification of the language could be questioned, some argued.

“We’re a fairly small community and many of us wear multiple hats in the community,” said council member Heidi West. “We all have these overlaying responsibilities. We’re careful of how those interface, but (this) needs more reflection and exploration of what those scenarios are when you take it off a page and put it into a real world scenario.”

Council member Jess Ramos agreed, suggesting that some of the language, including that over civility, respect and decorum, could be subjective. The draft repeated with less clarity what’s already covered by state law, he added.

“When we look at some of these different things, and while I really appreciate the intention of it – and I really hold honesty and integrity above all else just like everyone else on this council – it really leaves a lot of stuff open to scrutiny that may or may not restrict our freedom in some aspects if we’re concerned about these being enforced,” said Ramos.

But even there, not all members of the council agreed.

“There’s always going to subjectivity,” said council member Julie Merritt. “I think reasonable people can differentiate between philosophical differences and whether or not someone has taken an action outside the ethics of this body.”

The committee Wednesday ended debate by tabling the proposal.

“Tabling this puts this back in the kitchen for a little more cooking, which is what it needs,” said council member Gwen Jones. “It needs to be reworked.”