Woodside: New ethics code may be both inspiring and enforceable | March 7, 2018 | Almanac | Almanac Online |


News - March 7, 2018

Woodside: New ethics code may be both inspiring and enforceable

by Dave Boyce

The ethics code in use by the city of Santa Ana attempts to inspire people to behave ethically rather than punish them after a fall from grace.

In Woodside, an ad hoc committee of 12 resident-volunteers participating in a series of workshops responded favorably to the Santa Ana code as they worked toward a recommendation to the Town Council on revising Woodside's ethics code.

The group met once each in January and February and has one more meeting set for Thursday, March 15.

Santa Ana's code is perhaps unusual in that it makes use of the personal pronoun, as in the following excerpts:

• I do not give special treatment or consideration to any individual or group beyond that available to any other individual.

• I treat my fellow officials, staff and the public with patience, courtesy and civility, even when we disagree on what is best for the community.

• I am a prudent steward of public resources and actively consider the impact of my decisions on the financial and social stability of the City and its residents.

The last page of this document includes a space for the signature of the public official.

The Santa Ana code is considered aspirational in that it describes ethical behavior and has no specific procedure for handling ethics complaints other than referring them to the city attorney or another designated person.

Woodside's code is considered enforceable rather than aspirational in part because it spells out what must be done — an investigation followed by mayoral and council action — when someone accuses someone else of an ethics violation.

Such an investigation took place in 2016 when a former town official alleged ethics violations by a volunteer appointed to the town's Architectural and Site Review Board. The volunteer allowed her membership on the board to lapse and the council chose not to act, but the town did hire an attorney to investigate and eventually paid a significant amount in legal fees, including the legal fees of the volunteer.

Under the Santa Ana code, the matter would more likely have been handled quietly by the town attorney or town manager. Workshop volunteers noted that this method, although not authorized by Woodside's code, has been used to handle past incidents.

The committee has also considered codes adopted by the cities of Riverside, Santa Clara, Los Gatos and Sunnyvale under the guidance of facilitator Hana Callaghan of the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics at Santa Clara University. Ms. Callaghan is preparing proposals based on committee suggestions from the February meeting.

Less lawyering up

Several committee members advocated at last month's meeting for specific language on handling complaints. With broad support for Santa Ana's aspirational code, and few objections to including a procedure for handling complaints, the result may be a hybrid code, an option described by Ms. Callaghan as part aspirational and part enforceable.

An enforceable code, said committee member John MacDonald, "creates bad will instead of good will" among residents, town employees and volunteers. Enforceable codes elicit litigation, he added, "and then all of a sudden you lawyer up, and I really don't want more lawyering up in this town."

Committee member Marilyn Voelke argued against enforcement language, noting that if someone steps over a small line, an aspirational code can handle it. If a person proves too ornery for government service, the council can remove that person from office, and if someone steps over a big line, state law applies.

"In my opinion," she said, "we have a terrible ethics code and I can't imagine why we'd want to keep any part of it. ... There's nothing you can say that's good about it."

Committee member George Offen said he could accept the Santa Ana code, but also favored the current code if modified to refer to procedures for addressing violations of state ethics laws, albeit with a "much lighter hand."

Former mayor Dave Burow said he, too, could accept the Santa Ana code but with "more beef" around the complaint process.

Committee member Martin Walker said he preferred an "educational style of ethics guidelines" and that it "seems just right ... for a town of our size."


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