The Homer City Council in a special meeting Monday night investigated six more ethics complaints. Acting as the Board of Ethics, the council also investigated further a complaint, 2014-02, it had first reviewed at its April 14 meeting. All meetings were held in executive session. At the end of the private meeting, Mayor Pro Tem Francie Roberts announced in open session that the Board of Ethics had discussed the cases and consulted with city attorney Tom Klinkner on what further action it might take.
Under the city’s ethics code adopted in 2008, all ethics complaints are kept confidential and each written complaint alleging a violation is assigned a number in order of when the complaint is filed. The code was revised after a complaint filed by Tom Taffe against former council member Matt Shadle. Taffe later withdrew the complaint and filed a lawsuit against Shadle, but then withdrew that suit.
Ethics complaints 2014-01 and -02 were first considered at the April 14 special meeting. Ethics complaints 2014-03 through 2014-08 were considered at Monday’s special meeting. Prior to this year, only two ethics complaints under the new code have been considered, one in 2009 and one in 2011. The results of those complaints are unknown. The ethics code prohibits even discussing the nature of the alleged violation and the section of the Code of Ethics cited. If the Board of Ethics finds a violation has occurred, the complaint becomes public when the board completes a written report for distribution as a public record.
The code of ethics applies to the city manager, the city council, the mayor and any other member of a board or commission subject to confirmation by the council. The code prohibits conduct such as participating in an action in which an official has a substantial financial interest, lives or owns land within 300 feet of a property subject to action, attempting to exert undue influence, using an office for personal gain, accepting gratuities, disclosing confidential information, and engaging in political activities while on duty. Council members and the mayor have a duty to disclose potential conflicts.
Because of confidentiality, it’s difficult for anyone to track the progress of a complaint, a point the Homer News made in public comments at the special meeting. The code also prohibits complainants from making their cases public, and provides for dismissal if the complainant knowingly discusses the issue. There is nothing in the Board of Ethics rules that prohibits discussing the status of a complaint, for example, if it will proceed to investigation.
However, as with all meetings in executive session, the city must give notice of a possible executive session, provide supporting memorandums for the need for an executive session and hold a public vote on going into executive session. Thus if a complaint is considered again, as happened with 2014-02, it suggests that the Board of Ethics found sufficient evidence to investigate the complaint.
The person who is the subject of a complaint — called a “respondent” in the code — can ask that an investigation be held in open session. Respondents and complainants are excluded from deliberations but not the hearing. If a city council member or the mayor is the subject of an ethics complaint, his or her absence from deliberations also would imply that he or she is the subject of a complaint.
At Monday night’s special meeting, the Board of Ethics left the Cowles Council Chambers after voting to meet in executive session. Because a conference room adjacent to the council chambers is not soundproofed, the board went upstairs to meet in another conference room. It is unknown if other parties, such as the respondent or complainant for 2014-02, joined that meeting.
After the Board of Ethics holds its investigation and deliberations, it then would meet in open session to vote on these questions:
• Whether the board finds a violation;
• Whether the board recommends further administrative or remedial action; and
• What specific sanctions, corrective actions or referrals the board recommends.
No such open vote was held on Monday and the results of the Board of Ethics’ considerations on the complaints considered, 2014-02 to 2014-08, remain confidential.
For the complete Code of Ethics, Chapter 1.18, and the code establishing the Board of Ethics, Chapter 2.80, visit the Homer News website at www.homernews.com.
Michael Armstrong can be reached at michael.