Lawrence City Commission to consider adopting process for investigating potential ethics violations

photo by: Nick Krug

Lawrence City Hall, 6 E. Sixth St., is pictured on May 3, 2016.

The Lawrence City Commission will soon decide on procedures for investigating potential ethics violations by its members and other city positions.

As part of its meeting Tuesday, the Lawrence City Commission will consider a resolution that establishes procedures for investigating alleged violations of the city’s ethics and professional conduct policy, according to a city staff memo to the commission. Currently, there is not a process laid out for investigating ethics complaints made against commissioners, city advisory board members or the city manager.

In 2018, the commission approved a new ethics policy to replace a policy from 1991 that made relatively general prohibitions about using one’s office for personal gain. The revised policy explicitly bans all employees from accepting various forms of gifts, appropriating city-owned property for personal use, using information obtained as part of their position to advance personal or financial interests, and retaliating against people who report ethics violations, among other provisions. The policy lays out the potential repercussions for violating the ethics policy, which include possible termination or removal from office, and clarifies that the policy applies to all city employees, elected officials, appointed officials and advisory board members.

However, city staff states that in an effort to further achieve the commission’s strategic plan for effective governance and professional administration, staff seeks direction on how to handle the investigation of ethics complaints when they are made. The memo states a member of the public recently made a potential complaint against an advisory board member, but there is no process currently in place for how to handle it.

Based on a review of the practices of other cities, city staff is bringing forward four potential investigation methods. Those methods comprise the use of an independent investigator; an ethics panel; a hybrid between an independent investigator and an ethics panel; and an investigation done by the city manager and/or the city attorney. Staff note that if an outside investigator is used, there will be a cost for those services.

Staff is recommending that the city attorney initially handle complaints and an outside investigator be hired as needed. The commission will then make a decision based off the initial review by the city attorney and any outside investigation.

Specifically, proposed changes to the city’s ethics and professional conduct resolution call for complaints to be delivered in writing to the city attorney, who will conduct an initial review to determine whether the complaint sufficiently states a violation and is credible. The city attorney will provide copies of the complaint to the person alleged to have committed the violation, the city manager and the commission.

The person can file a written response to the complaint, which the commission will consider along with the city attorney’s initial review. The commission will then vote whether to dismiss the complaint or forward it to an outside investigator. The commission will review any investigations to determine further action. The process is slightly different for alleged violations involving the city manager, in which case the complaint must be made to the mayor and the commission determines whether to pursue an outside investigation.

The City Commission will convene virtually at 5:45 p.m. Tuesday with limited staff in place at City Hall, 6 E. Sixth St. The city has asked that residents participate in the meeting virtually if they are able to do so. A link to register for the Zoom meeting and directions to submit written public comment are included in the agenda that is available on the city’s website, lawrenceks.org.

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