Based on an ethics code from the city of Santa Ana, the proposed code for Woodside would replace legalistic language and not require investigations. The new code would be intended to inspire town government volunteers to behave ethically, and it would include an informal and flexible process for dealing with complaints. It would not apply to town employees.
Town Hall staff will be returning with a resolution to formalize the consensus, along with an analysis of unintended consequences of a code that leaves specific enforcement procedures to the mechanisms of state ethics laws.
Resident Marilyn Voelke was one of 14 members of the ad hoc committee formed in spring 2017. The group convened for three workshops in early 2018 under the direction of a facilitator from the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics at Santa Clara University. Members convened a fourth time on their own.
Their work product: two code options, one aspirational with an informal process for dealing with complaints, and a hybrid code that is aspirational in nature but includes a step-by-step complaint process.
"I have to tell you that I was extraordinarily impressed with every member of the committee," said Voelke, who was representing advocates for the aspirational version of the code. "They all showed up with an open heart and open mind and wanting to do something good for the town," she said. "They worked together. There was no argument and it really made me feel good."
Of the 14 committee members, eight advocated for the four-page aspirational code and believe that it should "provide guidance and inspire public officials faced with ethical dilemmas," Voelke said. "They want the new code to provide a positive approach, appealing to public officials' sense of higher purpose (to) remind them that they are acting for the greater good."
Mandatory enforcement provisions might prove to be vague, expensive to implement, and may allow political rivals to "weaponize the code, leading to ill will among the citizenry," Voelke said. "We had some of that happen with our old legalistic code because it was difficult to apply."
Of the 14 committee members, 10 supported some kind of process for dealing with complaints, their report said. The aspirational code under consideration, including language credited to former mayor Dave Burow, assigns the town manager the role of mediator in handling complaints.
For complaints that cannot be resolved informally, the town manager can engage the town attorney, the mayor, the Town Council or an "appropriate enforcement authority."
Voelke, who is a retired attorney, noted the responsibilities that come with a formal enforcement process, including acting as a quasi-judicial body. Most town government volunteers don't have the education, talent or interest for that kind of work, she said, adding: "I don't really think that's something we should impose on you."
"Actual courts have actual professionals who do that," she said. "They have staff, they have clerks, they have attorneys, they have judges, they have a body of law and precedent they can follow. That'll never happen here."
The alternative to the aspirational option is eight pages long and based on Woodside's current code, former mayor and retired attorney Ron Romines said. "I came down on the side of a hybrid code," he said. "Essentially it marries the aspirations of the Santa Ana code with what, in effect, are the duties stated in the existing Woodside code."
He added that while he liked statements in the aspirational code, he found it lacking in guidance for the day-to-day conduct of public officials when they get appointed or elected.
The hybrid version includes "a very detailed step-by-step procedure," but it is informal, it does not expose the matter to the public, and it is a nonpunitive process, Romines said. While there is investigation and inquiry by local officials, "there are no hearings, no adjudication," he said.
If a preliminary inquiry yields a finding, the town manager, town attorney or a council subcommittee would handle a further inquiry. When a council member is the accused, the mayor and town manager, or the town attorney at the discretion of the mayor would handle it, he said. "The thrust is to try to find an informal resolution without going any further," Romines said.
The committee made several general statements as to ethical conduct for elected or appointed officials who do business with the town, including the following:
• That they should not be precluded from serving the town in an elected or appointed public capacity.
• That recusal for council members who do business with the town was unnecessary when considering appointments of officials who may rule on their businesses.
• That they should disclose potential impacts on their current or pending clients of a policy under discussion.
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