Ordinance to ‘shine light’ on government

By: Kristyne E. Demske | St. Clair Shores Sentinel | Published April 24, 2013

After more than three years before a subcommittee, there will be another month’s wait for a new ethics ordinance to govern elected officers and department heads of St. Clair Shores.

Introduced at the April 15 City Council meeting, the 11-page ordinance details many of the ways an elected or appointed official of the city — defined as City Council members, the mayor, or members of the Planning Commission, Zoning Board of Appeals, Tax Increment Finance Authority (TIFA) Board and Corridor Improvement Authority Board — the City Manager and department heads shall conduct themselves with regards to gifts, solicitations and conflicts of interest.

While St. Clair Shores already has an ordinance on the books for employees, elected and appointed officials are not considered employees of the city and, thus, do not fall under the purview of that ordinance, explained City Attorney Robert Ihrie.

He took council members through the ordinance, step-by-step, at the meeting, explaining that it is not meant to be just a general guideline for those it covers, but a specific plan.

The ordinance, Ihrie said, is “intended to be aspirational, to really instill a sense of trust in the general public.

“It’s really to shine the light of day on to government and to be an ordinance that will show to the general public that what does occur … really is occurring under the light of day.”

One of the members of the Ethics Ordinance subcommittee, Councilman Peter Rubino, acknowledged that no ethics ordinance will ever be perfect, but that this was what they could all agree upon.

“You’re not dealing with black and white,” he said. “It’s very subjective.”

The ordinance prohibits one of the elected or appointed officials or department heads in the city from accepting gifts from a prohibited source, which is a person or entity who is seeking or has sought in the prior two years official action from the city, has done business or seeks to do business with the officer or employee, conducts activities regulated by the city official or has interests that may be “substantially affected by the performance or nonperformance of the official duties of the officer or employee.”

It also calls for elected and appointed officers of those boards and commissions, as well as department heads and the city, manager, to file an annual disclosure statement with the city delineating certain financial interests in any company, business or entity that has contracted with the city or sought licenses or approval from it in the prior two years.

Ihrie said the disclosure statement isn’t meant to discourage residents from being a part of the board if they conduct business in the city, it just “requires them to disclose that fact to the City Clerk so there is nothing hidden from the public.”

“The more light of day that this ordinance requires, the more burdensome the obligations will be to the public official,” he explained.

The ordinance also calls for the appointment of an Ethics Ombudsman to be available to assist officials and employees in wading through the ordinance and understanding it, and for the establishment of a five-person Board of Ethics. The board will investigate written ethics complaints and determine whether they are legitimate and, if so, to conduct a complete investigation that will then be handed over to the city attorney, a non-voting member of the board.

“They do not have any authority to punish, to penalize, to censure, to charge a crime,” Ihrie said. “They cannot do anything. The board is essentially an investigatory body and a recommending body.”

In discussions with City Council, changes suggested by Councilwoman Candice Rusie included amending the disclosure requirement to allow for the possibility that some professionals — such as lawyers — legally cannot disclose the names of clients they have solicited or done business with.

A section exempting meals given to elected or appointed officials at Michigan Municipal League and Southeast Michigan Council of Governments (SEMCOG) events will also be broadened, at the suggestion of Councilman John Caron, to include other professional conferences for department heads or board or commission members that have been authorized in advance.

Other questions, such as how the City Clerk will be expected to curate a list of all entities requesting assistance from City Hall, the listed boards or commissions, also still need to be addressed.

Because of that, council members voted unanimously to postpone a vote on the ordinance until May 20, after Ihrie is able to incorporate suggestions from council members back into the ordinance.

Rusie said she also hoped residents would have more time to give feedback.

“This is a complex, complicated, long document,” she said. “I think it’s important that people understand what’s in it.”

For a look at the full ordinance, download the April 15, 2013, City Council packet by visiting www.scsmi.net, clicking on “Agendas and Minutes” under the “City Hall” heading at the top of the page, then following the link to the “Current Year City Council Agenda/Packets/Minutes.”