Skip to comments.Local Leaders to Feel New Ethics Restraints (peer censure is the only penalty listed)
Posted on 12/04/2005 5:02:48 AM PST by mcg2000
State reforms after Waltz order city, county rules
In the wake of Tennessee Waltz, local municipal and county leaders have not so much as tweaked their ethics policies, let alone revamped them.
But if the state legislature has its way, local officials might not have a choice.
A provision inserted into a proposed ethics reform bill for state officials would require cities and counties across Tennessee to work "in concert" to come up with their own legislation for establishing new local ethics rules. Specifically, the bill instructs local governments to come up with legislation that would regulate lobbying efforts.
"It's better for them to write the rules since they know it better than we do," said state Sen. Jim Kyle, D-Memphis, a member of the joint legislative committee that made the ethics bill recommendation.
"But we're telling them if they don't write the rules, then we'll write them for them."
Kyle said he envisions one bill for cities and one bill for counties -- coordinated through groups such as the Tennessee Municipal League and Tennessee County Services Association -- that would be adopted statewide.
A special legislative session has been called for Jan. 10 to consider the 90-page bill drafted in November by the bipartisan House-Senate committee. If the state bill is approved unchanged, cities and counties would have just a year to come up with a proposal.
"That gives these local governments, your counties and your cities, a chance to determine on a statewide basis what needs to be done," Kyle said.
The Tennessee Waltz corruption investigation in May led to bribery charges against five current or former legislators plus two "bagmen."
Also, Shelby County Commissioner Michael Hooks was indicted on federal extortion and bribery charges in September in connection with the FBI sting.
The commission last revisited its ethics guidelines last year when it approved a supplement to the county charter.
The new policy limits commissioners to gifts valued at $250 or less and explains situations where conflicts of interest might exist.
But the only penalty outlined in the policy for engaging in "unethical conduct" is a censure, and the policy itself remains advisory, established for "guidance" in certain situations.
"We need to put some teeth in it," said Commissioner Joe Ford, who presided over the adoption of the policy last year.
Ford said he wants the commission to set up a committee early next year to study the legislation passed by the state and adopt those measures for the county.
"I think that you'll see a stronger ethics ordinance passed on the county side within a year," he said.
Commission chairman Tom Moss said it would be "appropriate to dust off what we've got," but he said any revisions to the county's rules should not be done in a "knee jerk" manner.
Similarly, city government's ethics ordinance, adopted by the Memphis City Council in November 1999, states that the standards "are not mandatory but are aspirational in character and represent ethical standards which every city official and employee should strive to follow."
Like the county, it limits gifts to an economic value of less than $250.
Council members have not said whether they plan to revisit their ethics policy.
By comparison, Nashville's proposed new ethics rules limit promotional gifts to $25 and cap meals, tickets, travel and similar gifts from charitable organizations to $100 from any single person or group.
If given final approval Tuesday, Nashville's rules also would ban all meals provided to the entire council by groups that have had or are likely to have business before the council.
"The council used to have dinners prior to council meetings paid for by different organizations," said Jon Cooper, assistant legal adviser to the council. "When the press started talking about that ... they decided to cut that out altogether."
Nashville's new ethics rules also add a financial disclosure provision for council members. However, in recent weeks that provision has been amended from previous versions that would have required spouses and other family members in the household to do the same.
Memphis City Council member Brent Taylor said the reason the city's policy doesn't have more teeth results from the advice of council attorney Allan Wade.
"We were told at the time that we're all elected by the public and we answer only to the public," Taylor said. "As council members we are not given the power to pass judgment on our colleagues."
The only sanction addressed in the Memphis ethics ordinance is a provision allowing council members to censure fellow members.
Taylor said he is not opposed to tougher ethics rules, but he's not convinced that any more are needed.
"There's been a lot of talk about ethics... but we have laws on the books," he said. "Those laws nabbed seven people (in the state corruption sting). What other law could we have passed that would have gotten more people?
"Sometimes legislative bodies are bad about finding a parade and hopping in front of it."
Council member Jack Sammons said he believes it's good to have a "political cleansing every now and then because some people have lost their moral compass."
Sammons said he prefers across-the-board legislation for state and local officials. But he said he believes there's only so much ethics laws can do.
"You can't legislate morality. If a guy's a thief you can pass six volumes of ethics laws and he's still going to be a thief."
-- Michael Erskine: 529-5857
-- Jacinthia Jones: 529-2780
Arlington: Town Supt. Ed Haley said he doesn't believe Arlington has a written ethics policy -- at least he hasn't seen one -- but the city will comply with any ethics standards mandated by the General Assembly.
Bartlett: All of Bartlett's elected and appointed officials take an extensive oath of office where they promise to perform duties without being affected by personal consideration of gain or conflict. Mayor Keith McDonald said if the state required a more comprehensive policy it would be something the city would address in the future.
Collierville: The city has a written ethics policy for its employees, but none yet for elected or appointed officials.
Germantown: The city has not adopted an ethics policy for elected officials, and none of the suburb's five aldermen has requested a study of the issue, Mayor Sharon Goldsworthy said, adding it would be a good topic to introduce at a January retreat for the Board of Mayor and Aldermen.
Lakeland: Lakeland has ethics practices but not written policies, although officials are developing one, said city manager Bob Wherry.
Millington: The city's charter has a provision adopted in 1951 that prohibits elected officials from receiving gifts or free services. Nor may they profit from city business or interfere with the performance of duties of employees.