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Council calls for code of ethics

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County: Decision on any further charter changes await new councilors

By Arin McKenna

The Los Alamos County Council met Tuesday in hopes of concluding three years of work by the Charter Review Committee.

But discomfort on the part of some councilors with the CRC’s recommendations, along with the impending turnover on the council, prompted a call for further study of some issues and the delay of others.

Council did take action on the CRC’s recommendation for the establishment of a code of ethics.

The committee had recommended a charter amendment requiring the establishment of a code of ethics. Councilors asked County Attorney Rebecca Ehler if establishing a code of ethics required a change to the Charter.

“You could do this through ordinance, and it is more flexible that way,” Ehler said. “Having clear ethics in your charter makes it more difficult to change and be responsive to changing ethical standards, but it also gives it a more elevated status.”

Assistant County Attorney Daniel Gonzales reported on a memo he had completed in September 2011 comparing the county’s ethics standards with the Governmental Conduct Act of 2011.

“The good news is that for virtually every provision that’s in the state act, we have some sort of corresponding provision in the ordinances, the policies or the rules,” Gonzalez said. “There are some that just don’t apply to us, but there are a couple that we don’t have a corresponding provision.

“The additional good news is that in many of those provisions where we have a corresponding provision, our code is more stringent than the requirements of the act.”

Gonzales said that the exception was that under state law certain violations are felonies, which the county cannot impose. He said council could consider adopting the state code or increasing penalties within its jurisdiction on certain violations.

Council was concerned about the ethics provisions being scattered throughout the code, policies and rules rather than consolidated in one place.

Councilors also supported a CRC recommendation that ethics standards apply to all elected officials, employees and members of boards and commissions. The attorneys were not certain that current ethics standards applied across the board.

There were also questions about a recommendation that the code of ethics be approved yearly, which is not required by law.

CRC member Harry Ettinger explained the reasoning.

“Yearly approval is to make sure that people do not get surprised,” Ettinger said. “For myself, I believe that having the code of ethics in one place, making sure it applies to everyone and having yearly approval is a reasonable thing to have.

“Every time you turn around, someone is doing something stupid and saying, ‘Gee, I didn’t realize that was illegal. I just thought it was stupid.’ And you don’t have to go back very far to see someone doing something stupid and getting fired for it.”

Ettinger said that yearly approval makes it easier to adapt to changing ethical standards and requirements.

Councilor Rick Reiss made a motion that no action be taken on the charter amendment. The motion also directed the county attorney to draft an ordinance establishing a code of ethics that applies to all elected officials, employees and members of boards and commissions, and that would be reviewed annually.

The motion passed unanimously.

The most contentious issue during Tuesday’s session was the CRC’s recommendation regarding the Department of Public Utilities. Council voted 6-1, with Reiss voting no, to establish a five person ad hoc committee to address concerns about oversight and accountability and whether profits could be returned to the department for other uses, including the support of other utility systems.

Council voted unanimously to take no action on an ordinance to amend the Structure of Government section of the Charter, with the provision that this could be taken up at a later date. Council did not feel it was appropriate to incur the expense of a special election for a vote on one charter amendment.

Council also voted 6-0 to defer action on issues raised by the CRC concerning the duties and responsibilities of the County Clerk until the new council has been seated. Council Chair Sharon Stover, who is the newly elected county clerk, recused herself from the discussion.