When commissioners interviewed potential candidates late last month for two open positions on the ethics commission, among the routine questions of background, qualifications, availability and familiarity with the code came some very pointed inquiries.
From reporter Bethany Rodgers’ July 31 article: “A couple of the questions addressed specific situations the ethics commission might face, such as whether a commissioner can own a business while in office and what restrictions are appropriate in these cases. The applicants also tackled a question about whether the ethics commission should be allowed to reconsider a prior opinion.”
Perhaps these questions appear innocuous enough at first blush. In fact, they’re as loaded as a six-shooter with a full chamber. Implicitly, what the commissioners are getting at is how candidates would have ruled in the case of Commissioner Kirby Delauter, who sought the ethics commission’s opinion after his election on whether his company, WF Delauter & Son Inc., could bid on county government capital improvements projects.
Initially, the commission ruled no. Delauter secured an attorney and appealed. The ruling was overturned. Another complaint led to another hearing that vindicated Delauter of any conflict of interest. In between, membership of the commission changed. In April 2013, new members were appointed. The question of elected officials’ business ties was brought up during those interviews as well.
This was a messy, unpleasant and, for Delauter, costly business.
And it is this leading line of questioning from our elected county leaders that makes a compelling case for a more independent ethics commission, one with members who are not hand-picked by the very people they are supposed to police.
Rodgers interviewed candidates for executive and county council for a story that appeared Saturday asking about ethics reform. We ran a long but interesting piece by at-large council candidates Susan Reeder Jesse and Linda Norris on our Aug. 3 Sunday commentary page. They had some solid suggestions for improving the crucial work the ethics commission undertakes.
First and foremost, the new county government must revise how commission members are selected to prevent deck stacking. We recognize that it’s impossible to create a perfectly pure process devoid of any favoritism, but at the very least a nonpartisan group could vet and nominate candidates.
The ethics commission’s structure and powers need to be changed to accommodate the complexity and special interest pressure that will come with the new executive post and county council. The commission’s attorney should come from outside county government to lessen any influence from his or her boss in the executive’s office.
The commission should have subpoena power to compel testimony and solicit supporting documentation. Finally, the code should be updated and criminal penalties included to ensure enforcement, with violations submitted to the state prosecutor or state’s attorney’s office.
One complaint this election season is that voters have lost both trust and confidence in their elected representatives, most especially the commissioners. That trust can be restored if the public has confidence that our county council and executive are abiding by a stringent code of behavior overseen by a panel that is, as much as it is possible to be, beyond reproach.