Council ethics proposal hasn’t found common ground yet

Deciding how to tighten City Hall’s ethics rules for councilmen is a tough call, as we’re finding out this month. Councilmembers all seem to agree that reforms are needed, but that’s about as far as the agreement goes.

And curiously, for once Mayor Tom Leppert is having trouble holding together a voting coalition large enough to rubber-stamp his ethics proposals. Makes me think that for many council members, currying political favor with the high-flying Leppert is worth less than wringing additional campaign contributions out of apparently numerous and generous "constituents". Or so it would appear.

There are two significant aspects to Leppert’s proposals.

One is that councilmen couldn’t accept campaign contributions from people with zoning change proposals pending unless the contributions were received 60 days before or after the proposal has been acted upon. That idea seems like a massive no-brainer — what possible reason could there be to donate money — so close to decision-time — to a councilman almost single-handedly responsible for getting your zoning deal approved than to infludence the outcome of the deal?

Leppert seems to have selected 60 days as the opt-out period because he thought it was something the council would approve, but a recent DMN’s story reports that individual councilmen are whining that (a) 60 days is too long and (b) the proposal makes it more difficult for councilman to raise money from said developers than challengers (since challengers wouldn’t be subject to the restriction under Leppert’s proposal).

Angela Hunt waded into this aspect of the ethics proposal by commenting on her website that 60 days was too short of an opt-out period; she also said she might favor applying the same rule to councilmen and their challengers.

On the 60-day policy, Hunt is absolutely correct — probably a full year before and after a decision would make more sense, because it wouldn’t be difficult to trade a vote for cash Oct. 1 and then wait to receive your holiday donation Dec. 1, now would it?

As for resolving the issue by including challengers in the rule, that seems a little big-brothery to me, given that incumbents already enjoy a huge financial advantage. Any developer with a brain would be leery of donating to challengers — most of whom never wind up being elected anyway — knowing full well that the councilman who will actually vote on the issue will be watching silently (and uncompensated by the developer, I might add) from the sidelines. No, I think that part of the issue will police itself quite nicely without any further council action.

That brings us to the second big ethics issue: What to do about the virtual headlock that individual councilmen have on zoning changes in their respective districts?

Right now, if a project is proposed in Councilman A’s district, odds are probably in the 99 percent range that if Councilman A favors the project, every other councilman will, too. That gentlemen’s agreement, precipitated by the fact that councilmen are underpaid and too busy to stick their nose too far into other councilmen’s business, is rife with potential conflicts, as witnessed by the recent convictions of former councilman Don Hill and his planning commission surrogate, D’Angelo Lee, for wielding that very power a little too illegally.

Leppert proposes requiring any zoning proposal to be endorsed by three councilmembers instead of just one, but that proposal seems to be frightening a few of the councilmembers, too. After all, that’s the one aspect of his/her district that allows a councilmember to actually carry out an agenda to mold the district in a way that the councilmembers believes is correct.

The bottom line, I’m afraid, is that the current rule — essentially majority rules, led by the home-base councilman — is probably the right one. But unless we compensate councilmen more appropriately, they’re all going to be subject to temptation from time to time. And as we all know, just about everyone — including councilmen — has his or her price. Paying them a living wage instead of part-time money would eliminate most of the temptation for all but the most slime-coated councilman, and there are always going to one or two people who can never get enough.

Somehow, though, selling an ethics proposal to voters by saying councilmen need to be paid more money doesn’t seem like a winning argument for a future U.S. senator. The Observer’s Jim Schutze offers his opinion on all of this in a column this week; it’s worth reading if I haven’t already worn you down about the topic.

The third leg of Leppert’s ethics proposal involves registering lobbyists Downtown, but even trying to do that raises all kinds of questions about who’s a lobbyist and who’s just a friend making a phone call. The idea seems great in the abstract, but coming up with a policy that actually has teeth seems unlikely. Whatever the council decides to do here, assuming any decision is reached, will likely be better than the current policy (which is no policy), but it probably won’t make much difference. The slickest lobbyists in town will figure out a way around this one. and the rest of us will spend more time filling out lobbying forms Downtown than actually "lobbying" any councilmen.

Color me doubtful on this whole ethics deal. Hunt is right: Now is the time to vote in significant ethics changes, rather than watered-down ones, since the public theoretically has the Hill debacle squarely in mind. But as has happened every other time someone has been busted Downtown, I suspect we’ll all be gathering here again in five or 10 years, shaking our heads and wondering why councilmen couldn’t shut the door on the bad guys back in 2009.

 


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