Council shelves ethics amendments again

By: Cortney Casey | Sterling Heights Sentry | Published October 3, 2012

For a second time City Council has put off adopting ethics policy amendments governing interactions between elected and appointed officials — this time until next year.

Council members cited unclear language as the catalyst for the unanimous vote Sept. 18 to postpone — until the first meeting of 2013 — a measure that would have limited how and why elected officials can make contact with the city’s other decision-making bodies.

They already had sent the proposal back to administrators for retooling once, in late August, for similar reasons.

The latest language stated that City Council members should not “appear before or have contact with a city board, commission or committee regarding pending or upcoming proceedings” if they have “a personal financial interest in the proceedings” or if they’re using their office “to unduly influence the outcome.”

If officials have a “direct interest” in the outcome due to location of their residence or potential adverse impact to their “personal interests,” contact is permissible, but must be conducted as “an interested resident,” with abstention from suggesting their status as elected officials should be given special consideration.

Mayor Pro Tem Michael Taylor said he felt the terminology was vague and overly inclusive.

“What I think is clear to me is that we should not be … using our position as council members to dangle over somebody’s head the fact that we get to vote on whether they keep their spot on the board or commission,” he said. “We should not be sending harassing or intimidating communications to board and commission members saying, ‘This is how I want you to vote, and by the way, you are underneath my thumb, and you are supposed to do as you’re told.’”

Councilwoman Maria Schmidt agreed that the amendment’s current version fails to capture the intention of what Councilwoman Barbara Ziarko was trying to accomplish when requesting such a policy, and Councilwoman Deanna Koski said she’d like to see it written out “in plain language.”

Councilman Paul Smith — who has fielded criticism for his propensity to contact the Zoning Board of Appeals to decry variances, both in person and via written missives — said he didn’t see it as an ethical issue.

“I think sending a letter to a meeting or attending a meeting that’s shown on television is as open and ethical a conduct as you can imagine,” he said. “I think calling one of these people on the phone, or meeting them at a bar or a café behind closed doors, that would be questionable ethics.”

After Ziarko suggested delaying a vote until January 2013, allowing all members time to give feedback to City Attorney Jeff Bahorski, Mayor Richard Notte joked, “Maybe we’ll postpone until 2014.”

As part of the same agenda item, council members unanimously adopted a policy that precludes candidates for any public office from trumpeting their candidacy and platform at the podium.

While the council in the past has informally classified such behavior as not germane to city business, and therefore inappropriate fodder for public comment periods, some candidacy-related speeches have slipped through, prompting officials to codify the policy.

“It would apply to anybody who is addressing the council, either under citizen communication or an agenda item,” said Bahorski. “The idea is that they would not use the podium at a meeting to either announce or advance their campaign.”