Ethics

Back when I was young, the man I was engaged to marry lived in a fabulous three-bedroom duplex on the top two floors of a high-rise on Roosevelt Island, a sliver of land in the East River, parallel to Manhattan’s Upper East Side. The panoramic view from his windows showed only the beautiful parts of New York. At the time, I worked in a government job that put me smack against the city’s ugly underbelly. Every time I took the tram across the river to Roosevelt Island, I felt as if I were starting a vacation from my life.

But if we got married, I couldn’t in good conscience live there. It was an illegal sublet. Instead, once we got married, he moved into my little one-bedroom, unair-conditioned apartment in a working-class section of Manhattan. Looking back, I don’t think he ever stopped resenting me for refusing to move into his place, and I don’t think I appreciated how hard it was for him to give up that illicit gem.

All this to say that sometimes the simple ethical choices are the hardest to follow. As I read over the Code of Ethics the Town Council adopted at its Nov. 22 meeting, I think the simple expectations may be the hardest for council members, such as:

• Behaving consistently and with respect toward everyone with whom they interact.
• Treating other Council members and the public with respect and honoring the opinions of others even when the Council members disagree with those opinions.
• Not reaching conclusions on issues until all sides have been heard.
• Council members should faithfully attend and prepare for meetings.
• To the extent appropriate, they should be willing to put the Council’s interests ahead of their own.
• They should prohibit unjustified delays in fulfilling public records requests.

Granted, that last point is one that council should hold town accountable for. Even council members have difficulty getting staff to produce requested information.

In the months that come, we’ll be paying attention to the eye-rolling, the belittling comments and the dismissive tone of voice council members use with one another during discussions. We’ll be noting when council members appear to have made up their minds about a topic before the public has a chance to comment. We’ll keep track of who shows up to meetings and who doesn’t, and who ducks out early.
In approving the Code of Ethics, council members may have made their jobs that much harder.
– Nancy Oates

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7 Comments

  1. Is there a code of ethics for town employees? Thank you.

  2. Terri Buckner

     /  December 17, 2010

    How do we draw a distinction between ethics as defined here and normal human behavior? Show me someone whose facial expression never changes to reflect their emotions and I’ll show you someone who doesn’t have enough passion to serve the people as an elected official. There’s a huge difference between a goal of respectful behavior and acknowledging the human-ness of council members.

  3. Nancy Oates

     /  December 17, 2010

    K: I sent an e-mail to the town’s public information officer, Catherine Lazorko, yesterday asking her that question, and I left a voicemail message for her today. I’ll let you know what she says.

  4. Nancy Oates

     /  December 17, 2010

    Catherine Lazorko sent the following response to my e-mail:
    1. See the Town Administrative Policies and Procedures manual, section 1, which has an ethics policy for employees. [[Note from NEO: see text below, “Ethical Issues Introduction.”]]

    2. Note that Exhibit A to the Council Code of Ethics is a list of laws and town ordinances that relate to ethical related issues. Several of these listed items include standards that apply to both appointed staff and elected officials. http://chapelhillpublic.novusagenda.com/Bluesheet.aspx?itemid=1020&meetingid=89

    3. Generally, ethical considerations in public service underpin many personnel rules in place. As an example, our policies set up a disclosure system for conflicts of interest.

    4. The Senior Management Team has adopted a mission and values statement.[[Note from NEO: The card Lazorko attached reads, “Our Values: Ethics, Social Equity, Professionalism, Respect, Innovation, Teamwork.”]] The values are under revision through a collaborative effort between the Senior Management Team and the Employee Forum, a representative group of employees who review issues and activities affecting employees and regularly provide input to the Town administration.

    “Ethical Issues Introduction
    Town employees should act in a manner that is not only proper, but that also avoids the suggestion of impropriety. The Town of Chapel Hill offers this policy statement as a general guideline for employee action. The statement is meant to assist employees in recognizing potential problem areas rather than setting out a complete list of “do’s and don’ts.”

    Employees who wish a particular guideline clarified or applied to specific instances should first go to their supervisor or department head. Department heads, in turn, should consult the Town Manager as needed. When deemed necessary, the Manager may ask for the advice of an “Ethics Panel,” which may include the Town Attorney, Personnel Director, Finance Director, and three employees from non-affected departments: a department head, a supervisor/superintendent, and a non-supervisory employee.

    Ethical Issues
    The following are some items of concern in the area of ethics and standards of behavior:

    Non-favoritism: All persons and organizations have the right to impartial and fair treatment by Town officials and staff. In particular, employees should exercise due care so as not to favor one group or person over another for non-work-related reasons.

    Confidentiality: Most Town government business is a matter of public record. In conducting this business, however, employees sometimes acquire information of a private nature concerning litigation, negotiation, criminal investigation, personnel actions, or other such activities. In all regulated areas, employees should consider information as confidential until a determination is made otherwise, upon advice of the department head or Manager. Disclosure of confidential information will be cause for disciplinary action; disclosure of confidential personnel records is a misdemeanor and may result in prosecution. (Departments are encouraged to develop department-specific guidelines to assure that employees are aware of what information within their job may be public and what information is confidential.)

    Conflict of Interest: Any employee who has reason to believe that he or she has a financial interest, or is contemplating the acquisition of a financial interest which may be affected by his or her official/regulatory actions, shall report the precise nature of such interest to the department head or, in the case of department heads, to the Manager. The department head or Town Attorney will determine the propriety of such interest and, if necessary, will determine what action must be taken in order to prevent a conflict between the private interest of the employee and his or her official duties and responsibilities. No employee shall participate in any official regulatory act which directly or indirectly affects a business, property, or activity in which he or she, or members of their immediate family, has a financial interest.

    If, in the opinion of the Manager, the property holdings, business interests, or outside employment pose a potential for a significant conflict of interest or the appearance of such, the employee may be required to divest themselves of such property or interest within a reasonable period of time, to put the item in a blind trust, or to make arrangements with other area agencies to handle enforcement, regulation, inspection, permitting, or complaint actions in lieu of themselves or other Town employees.

    (Personnel Ordinance provisions: Sec. 14-4a states: The work of the Town shall have precedence over other occupational interests of employees. The Town Manager shall have the right to review outside employment for salary, wages, or commissions which must be reported to the Town Manager to determine whether such employment is in conflict with the interest of the Town. Continuation of conflicting outside employment may be grounds for disciplinary action.)

    Reporting of Business Interests: Department heads will be required, on an annual basis or when requested by the Manager, to report to the Manager the following which they or their spouse or partner have:

    • any real property in Chapel Hill,* or
    • any ownership interest in business in Chapel Hill,* or
    • any ownership interest in businesses that hope to do business in Chapel Hill,* or
    • any outside employment or contractual obligations that bear on such interests.

    *or in the extra-territorial jurisdiction, or joint planning area, including the rural buffer and transition areas of Chapel Hill and Carrboro.

    Other employees, especially those in positions requiring inspections, plan review, permitting, or other regulatory work, or those in non-regulatory positions that may involve acquisition/land use/facility location/service extension decisions, or those involved in bid and contract work, may also be required to make such reports on an annual or periodic basis, as recommended by the department head, Ethics Panel, or Town Manager.

    Information disclosed under this policy will be considered personnel records; as such, information is private and confidential under the provisions of G.S. 160A – 168.

    Gifts and Gratuities: No employee shall solicit or accept, directly or indirectly, any gifts, gratuity, favor, discount, or price break, entertainment, loan, or any other thing of monetary value from any person, organization, or group with whom he or she has official, enforcement, or regulatory relationships for the Town government. (These limitations are not intended to prohibit the acceptance of product samples or other unsolicited articles of small value—$5 or less—or of vendor’s favors or door prizes at conferences, or of employee discounts which are distributed to all employees, nor to prohibit the acceptance of small seasonal gifts to front-line employees without authority to change service levels or decide who receives services. The limitations are not intended to prohibit employees from accepting unsolicited social courtesies which promote good public relations, nor to prohibit employees from obtaining loans from regular lending institutions.)

    Consequences: Violation of the Town’s Ethics Policy or the standards of ethical conduct in this policy, may result in disciplinary action, up to and including termination for detrimental personal conduct.

    Employee Rights: These provisions shall be interpreted and applied in a manner which does not unreasonably deny employees the same opportunities and rights available to other citizens to acquire and maintain private interests not in conflict with their Town duties and responsibilities.

    Departmental Policies: Because of the differences in the types of situations which employees may encounter, departments are encouraged to develop department-specific policies. These policies may be more strict than the general Town policy, and may be used to clarify and inform on such areas as confidentiality requirements, reporting of outside income and business interests, acceptance or non-acceptance of gifts, and other areas. These department-specific policies must be approved by the Town Manager.”

  5. Thank you Nancy and Catherine for the information.

    I was wondering who is responsible for ethics issues not covered by the recent council action which pertains only to the council itself.

    Now I understand that, apart from ordinances and laws governing ethical behavior, the Town Manager is solely responsible for ensuring that the conduct of town business avoids the appearance as well as the fact of impropriety.

  6. One of the glaring omissions in the recently adopted ethics rules was a mechanism for the community to bring forward issues of potential impropriety. Essentially, a Council member has to initiate an action against a colleague – a difficult row to hoe for most folks.

    The Town also lacks a defined mechanism for both employees and the wider community to question the ethical propriety of various actions. There are guidelines, there are rules but, as far as I’ve seen, there is not a specific, transparent and fair process that is clearly spelled out for initiating and then monitoring allegations of misconduct (while it’s important that any allegations are treated seriously, the Town must afford the maximum in due process to those allegedly involved).

    It appears that since there are grey areas requiring judgment calls, the fear was that an avenue for direct community action would make it easy to use accusations of ethical misconduct for political gain over identifying real malfeasance. I understood those concerns but thought we could craft a framework that supported direct community involvement.

  7. It should be stressed that the ethics policy is framed in terms of appearance as well as fact. Citizens (and council members, and staff) can and should comment freely and often on the ethical appearance of matters that come before them, whether or not those matters constitute an ethics violation. The general idea behind the policy is to stay entirely out of ‘gray areas;’ factual violations are much less common when staff and council know that even appearances may be questioned in a friendly way.

    When it may be expected that a reasonable citizen will perceive something as questionable, it doesn’t matter why that citizen may think so, the employee or council are still bound to avoid that appearance.

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