Archive for Sunday, December 23, 2007

Elected positions often come with codes of ethics

December 23, 2007


On the money: Lawrence leaders' financial interests vary.

On the money: Lawrence leaders' financial interests vary.

Related document

Lawrence Ethics Policy ( .PDF )

Related document

Sue Hack SSI ( .PDF )

This isn't their entire life: Consent agendas full of bids and bills, regular agendas full of rezonings and requisitions and executive sessions full of, well, lots of things they have to keep private.

No, in Douglas County, there's really no such thing as a full-time politician, at least not one who draws a full-time salary. Elected leaders on the City Commission, Lawrence School Board or County Commission all have other jobs or spouses who bring in regular paychecks.

But that can lead to a host of complications and questions for elected officials who are voted into office to watch out first and foremost for the public's interest, but likely can't afford or don't desire to put their private business interests on hold either.

"If you hold elected office, it doesn't mean you can't be a business leader, it doesn't mean you can't be involved in a lot of ventures," said George Frederickson, a professor in Kansas University's department of public administration and an expert in governmental ethics. "The question is always where you draw the line."

Following more than a month's worth of controversy over open meetings and conflicts of interest related to a $1 million economic development package given to Deciphera Pharmaceuticals, some members of the public are looking for a bright line.

Several elected leaders said this week that they have one, but it most often is in their mind, instead of on a piece of paper that can be pointed to.

"I've always worked on the principle of when in doubt, err on the side of caution," City Commissioner Rob Chestnut said. "That is my mantra in a lot of ways."

Douglas County Commissioner Bob Johnson - who has faced allegations of improperly participating in the Deciphera deal because he owns about $8,000 in the company's stock - operates on an easy-to-remember philosophy as well.

"Transactions should be at an arm's length, and they should always look OK in the light of day," Johnson said. "That's the code of ethics I work on."

Problematic practice

But governments can and sometimes do have written codes of ethics.

Frederickson serves as the part-time ethics administrator for the Unified Government of Wyandotte County. He oversees an ethics code - 20 pages in length - that covers all elected officials, appointed officials and employees of the unified government.

The city of Lawrence actually has a written code, but it would be an understatement to say that it isn't discussed often. It was passed in 1991, and it is unclear whether it has ever been discussed in a meeting since then. Commissioners are given the document as part of a packet of materials when they first join the commission.

"I had forgotten that we had it," said City Commissioner Boog Highberger, who was reminded after City Manager David Corliss sent out a copy via e-mail to commissioners last week.

Frederickson, who lives in Lawrence, said he has noticed practices in Douglas County governments that create ethical concerns.

One involves current Lawrence Mayor Sue Hack.

Hack is an employee of the Lawrence Chamber of Commerce, serving as the organization's director of Leadership Lawrence. The chamber, however, receives funding from the city to conduct economic development marketing activities. In the past, Hack has not abstained from voting on portions of the city budget that include the chamber funding.

"Wherever a relationship like that is in place, it is problematic," Frederickson said. "When you get their employees serving in public office, it is problematic."

Highberger also reluctantly admitted he has concerns about Hack's employment with the chamber.

"I think the mayor's employment by the chamber of commerce does present some gray areas for us on a regular basis," Highberger said.

Hack didn't return phone calls seeking comment on this story. Previously she has said she is able to separate chamber business from city business without creating a conflict.

Other issues

Frederickson said he also has had concerns with how the commission has conducted itself over the years in regard to rental regulations. Previous City Commissions have on several occasions dealt with rental regulations, but it has been infrequent that commissioners who also are landlords have recused themselves from voting on rental matters.

"I think the commission has been pretty casual about that in the past," Frederickson said.

It could end up being an issue for this commission. Neighborhood associations have asked for tougher rental regulations, including the licensing of all apartment units in the city. Two city commissioners - Hack and Mike Amyx - have rental property in the city.

County Commissioner Charles Jones said he also would like to discuss creating guidelines for how business owners and others who have many clients in the community must conduct themselves when hearing public issues that involve those clients. Jones said he doesn't know that the matters are being handled improperly, but he does know it creates rumors around town.

"I don't want to trade in those rumors, but I think the public has the right to be confident that there is no conflict of interest," Jones said. "I think it is a legitimate issue to take on with the creation of an ethics policy."

More talk

The county does not have a written ethics policy that covers elected officials, although employees are covered by several policies that contain ethics clauses, County Administrator Craig Weinaug said.

The city's policy doesn't go into much detail on what type of relationships should cause an official to recuse him or herself. The Wyandotte County policy, for example, gets so specific that it talks about its being inappropriate to participate in public deals involving business interests held by the spouse, child, brother or sister of the elected official.

Some city leaders said they're willing to take a look at the city's existing ethics policy.

"If I'm asked whether we should take a look at this ethics statement, I would heartily agree that it ought to be reviewed," Corliss said. "It's going on 17 years old."

Frederickson - who is not familiar with Lawrence's ethics policy - said a discussion by elected officials may be in order. He said he has not closely followed the Deciphera controversy, but said it sounded "relatively minor." He also said that Lawrence and Douglas County have had a long-standing reputation for "clean government," and may not need a policy as strict as Wyandotte County, which had a history of corruption problems until the policy was put in place.

But he said that shouldn't stop the officials from talking about ethics and reviewing policies. He said they should keep a simple principle in mind and then create specific regulations.

"The idea of conflict of interest is not to discourage people from making money," Frederickson said. "The idea is that they're never personally enriched by holding office."

He also suggested one broad goal for the community, home to a university that has produced some of the top public administrators in the country.

"I think a city like Lawrence ought to pride itself in running the cleanest government in the state."


Horace 9 years, 12 months ago

Is there a reason this woman isn't in jail?

Richard Heckler 9 years, 12 months ago

According to this news story Mayor Hack voted to approve a $100,000 increase of tax dollars to her employer?

It has seemed odd to me that when a retail location gets a new tenant so many times a new site plan is required which involves bringing locations up to code,sometimes new sidewalks,landscaping etc etc. This has never applied to rental residential which is as retail as any other business in my books.

The city commission has in the past voted in real estate/property management people such as Doug Compton, Bonnie Lowe a banker and some representatives of Stephens Real Estate. Not to mention some very close relatives of the construction community.

camper 9 years, 12 months ago

The article states that Lawrence should have the cleanest govt, in the state. This statement indirectly implies that many local governments are not clean. This is true, in fact local governments in the US are probably the last place and maybe the most unwilling to implement internal controls and other regulatory measures that most businesses and other organizations have to abide by.

I don't know if Lawrece has a problem, but no doubt the Deciphera issue atleast brought a pontential weakness of governmental controls that could be take advantage of if desired. I may be somewhat naieve, because it is a fact that well-connected people make things happen, and it is often for the good of the community. But just as often that these intentions are not benevolent.

ljwreader1 9 years, 12 months ago

City administrators of Lawrence & Douglas County have a long history of "perceived" ethical conflicts, impropriety and collusion with the same small group local businesses. It's existed for decades, so why act as if it's just recently been discovered. Streets, neighborhoods, golf courses, parks and even... apartments complexes are named after these pillagers.

ASBESTOS 9 years, 12 months ago

City's have the most corrupt systems politicaly speaking.

Dealing with asbestos as the metaphore:

Take Libby, Montana for instance. The City Comission fought the listing on the NPL because of "loss of property value". However 3/4 of the city was symptonmatic, and 20% was diagnosed as lung diseases. Yet still the city fought against what was truley good for the city citizens, only the businesses with "clout".

Again just recently in Fort Worth, Texas, the EPA and the City of Fort Worth colluded to do an experimental demolition on an building and potentially expose people to asbestos during the process.The City is all for it, and suprisingly so is EPA. The local residents are not in favor of the test being in their residential area. Just google "Fort Worth demolition". The City of Fort Worth and the EPA were both parroting that the method is "safe" even though that has not been shown to so. There is no safe level for asbestos.

The third issue is Sommerville, Texas. Again the City stands in the way of everything for the preservation of the almighty "property value". SOmmerville was a small town where railroad ties and power poles were produced and reconditoned and burned. There is a really high level of several types of rare cancers, and it effects about 20% of the town directly, and about 50% indirectly. Just google Tosic and SOmmerville, Texas.

In all these cases the City is arguing against good science, and voting for power and the almighty dollar. Politicians do not get noticed when a river is clean or nobody is expoosed to asbestos, but all of them hunger for their "political legacy". Most of the time that is some strip mall that was not necessary being built. I am all for growth, but the cities are theworts.

When it comes to Corruption Cities are at the head of the pack. Just look at how many cities are violating KOMA and KORA laws.

When it comes to environmental cleanup and addressing all environmental issues, most cities want a plague stating that the "City is Green" because they changed to energy saving lightbulbs, but when it comes to a demoliton of a building or structure these same "Green Cities" are the first ones to ignore the asbestos laws.

Yes, those city governments DO need a lesson or two, and voters need to get wise.

Oracle_of_Rhode 9 years, 12 months ago

Lawrence's city government needs to be reorganized: no more at-large commissioners. An enforceable code of ethics that prevents special interests and developers to dominate. And real rules to disallow commissioners from voting on issues pertaining to stocks they own, their own employers, their own rental properties, and the like.

As of now, we have a scam commission lining their own pockets and those of their cronies with our hard-earned tax dollars.

Toto_the_great 9 years, 12 months ago

Damn, I didn't realize that the city commission was all old(er) white guys. Isn't Lawrence a mini-melting pot of sorts? How about some diversity and young guns?

jumpin_catfish 9 years, 12 months ago

Our leaders get into local government because of special interest. Business interest, hippy interest, gay marriage interest, no growth interest, the list goes on and on. You don't really think they're in it for "the people" do you? They are in it for their people.

TheYetiSpeaks 9 years, 12 months ago

I dont get it. Deciphera coming to Lawrence means the addition of many quality jobs to Lawrence, with the possibility for many, many more in the future. Lawrence is better for this deal, right? Are you really upset because the politicians in charge might have lined their own pockets in the process? I thought thats what politicians did. Where's the outrage when your senators and congressmen line their pockets with money from Big Oil and Big Tobacco. At least the local politicians still had a positive effect on the community.
In this country's political history, this is always the way things have been done. Thomas Jefferson was wealthy. Do you think he was setting things up to stay that way? Andrew Jackson kicked the Cherokee and others off their land for a multitude of made up reasons. The real reason: Gold was discovered on that land that the president and his buddies just had to get to. My opinion: I assume that politicians are going to do things that are advantageous to themselves financially. As long as it advantageous to the city as well, I dont have that much of a problem with it.

OnlyTheOne 9 years, 12 months ago

"Transactions should be at an arm's length, and they should always look OK in the light of day," Johnson said. "That's the code of ethics I work on."

Well, what happened with you, Ms Hack and Decipheria, Mr. Johnson?

jonny_quest 9 years, 12 months ago compensation listed, school board member, bank board....

My schedule is so hectic. First, I admonish Juanita for not cleaning all eight bathrooms and berate Emilio for the weeds in the lawn, then rush off to meet my sorority sisters for brunch, then endure an intense massage at the spa, then meet hubby for a mid-day rendezvous- thank goodness it doesn't last long since he's twenty years older than me, then exhausting tennis lessons and then a token appearance at these silly board meetings...0h, this darn i-Berry thing that hubby gave me is so complicated, which button unlocks my Escalade.

Kathy Theis-Getto 9 years, 12 months ago

Other than the required filing of the statement of substantial interest when one decides to run for office, members of any elected public body are bound by their personal ethics. While the other members of the body cannot make those decisions for another member, each member is ultimately responsible for their own decisions. The rest is up to the voters.

a2thek 9 years, 12 months ago

I just have one question, why is Sue Hack smiling?

Godot 9 years, 12 months ago

What about the conflict Charles Jones and Barbara Ballard have as elected officials who participate in funding and program decisions regarding their employer?

Bladerunner 9 years, 12 months ago

Enforcer says "I suggest everyone read ' The Prince' again."

Im just gonna dust off the old Purple Rain CD and listen instead.

camper 9 years, 12 months ago

There are so many rackets in city and local governments, nobody should be surprised. I guess it has always been that way? And always will?

justthefacts 9 years, 12 months ago

Couple points. When someone votes on a matter that may impact them personally, it will always look bad. However, if you step back just a little bit, you can see that 9 times out of 10 their vote did not carry the day. If they had the swing vote, they would be guilty of giving themselves something from public coffers. But someone like B. Ballard whose vote is one among many MANY votes in the KS Legislature in approving funding for KU cannot cast the vote that holds sway. Also, as long as we have "part-time" politicians, it will be next to impossible to eliminate all conflicts. People with personal lives who also serve in public office are bound to run into the "two masters" delimma from time to time. The alternative is to have officials who work at it full time. And that brings up the debate about professional politicians being out of touch with the common man (or woman).

The state of Kansas has resolved a lot of the conflict of interest debate by at least requiring they disclose their "substantial interests" and refrain from "participating" in making contracts with them. They are not, however, required to avoid legislating on other matters that may impact their lives - because to do so would eliminate 90% of all human beings.

If you can think of a way to attract decent people to serve in public office, and still prohibit them from doing anything that even remotely impacts them personally, but will allow them to take action on matters, try to put it in writing and provide it to the Legislature as suggested new law(s).

Finally, I agree with the comments about lack of diversity on the various local bodies. For a city that SAYS it is diverse, the representatives it chooses sure do not support that statement.

ljwreader1 9 years, 12 months ago

I think Highberger is secretly moonlighting as the mayor of Kansas City aka. Mark Funkhouser?

oldgoof 9 years, 12 months ago

I was about to think that the world was about to spin off its axis....but no, there he is. Marion saying his two words: grand jury.

OK weenies. get out there and get it started. It isn't going to happen. You can't indict a ghost.

I for one is very Glad Deciphera is here. For all the people whining about the investments.... just give them a call... I am sure they would take your money too. Stop your bitc****. At this stage of development, this is a highly speculative investment, it isn't an "insider deal." You can easily lose the whole thing. Such is the arch of bio-tech start-ups. But if the city doesn't play, it can't win, in terms of finding the high-salary jobs many of you always complain about.

Terry Jacobsen 9 years, 12 months ago

Conspiracy, conspiracy, conspiracy... gag.......... find something real to worry about. Sue Hack is a very ethical person and a good mayor. I for one don't like Dan Flynn and his company Deciphera, but I trust the city commission to do what is best for our city and improve business here. Why don't you people stop this character assasination unless you have real evidence of some ethical violation or crime. When I was growing up they called what you are doing "unethical"

jafs 9 years, 11 months ago

The Kansas Attorney General found that Ms. Hack had violated reporting requirements for her stock holdings, and that the City Commission violated the Open Meetings Act.

In addition, her presence at a closed door meeting was most likely unethical.

How much more evidence do you need, TJ?

Commenting has been disabled for this item.