Perception is 9/10 of the Law?
02/28/15 - Editorial by Chuck and Renee Wilkins
The old saying “Believe nothing that you hear and only half of what you see” is very sage advice. It’s easy to be fooled in today’s media-saturated world, and people become overly concerned with perception rather than reality.
Perception now finds its way into the newly proposed ethics ordinance coming forward in March. In reference to public trust it states “Elected Officials…shall not engage in conduct that they… reasonably should know is likely to create in the minds of reasonable, objective, fair-minded observers, the perception that they have used their public positions improperly….” Sure sounds good until you realize that words like “reasonable, objective, fair-minded and perception are purposely ambiguous to allow uncertainty.
There are serious considerations in passing this law; of utmost importance is clarifying those terms more succinctly. The goal should be prevention, protection and creating something that is equitable and easy to interpret. This city staff-initiated policy does include a laundry list of examples of what constitutes “anything of value or benefit”. It also includes a requirement for elected and appointed officials to file an annual statement of economic interest, which would be beneficial. Beyond these positive aspects, it is a little murky in some areas. The definition of harassment states; “knowingly pursuing a pattern of conduct that is intended to annoy, alarm, bully…” Who decides when to consider someone to be purposefully annoying? Many of us who speak up are by nature annoying. Is this the end of the squeaky wheel getting oiled? And again, the word perception needles its way to the forefront.
Differing perspectives can cloud perception. Ordinances are open to interpretation. We see it in the simple sign ordinance when the development services department classifies a sign as an event sign, yet code enforcement identifies the same sign as political. Perhaps it’s all in the attitude - a glass is half full vs. glass is half empty thing. An ethics ordinance should be crystal clear and not vulnerable to a skewed outlook or emotionalizing.
But never fear! They have included the creation of a “City Ethics Board” to review any and all charges. Unfortunately, this Ethics Board will consist of seven members appointed by the Governing Body. Hmmm. As part of a “reasonable” ethics ordinance dealing with such serious allegations and legal implications, this group should consist of outside independent attorneys, rather than politicos and lay people appointed by, quite possibly, the very people making the accusations.
Those creating this ethics ordinance say it is necessary in order to prevent corruption in government. However, concerns abound that it will likely be used to instill fear in Governing Body members, rendering them ineffectual as leaders. Use of such an ordinance to control and suppress elected representatives of the people is in itself corruption of the worst kind. Throwing such an all-encompassing net is bound to catch some innocent fish. Conspicuously absent from this code of conduct is any verbiage preventing Senior Staff Members from attempting to steer policy set by the Governing Body, although they did take time to get in depth regarding Governing Body members interfering in the executive functions of the City Manager.