Ethics board proposes code changes

December 7, 2018 GMT

Rochester’s Ethical Practices Board wants to broaden options for ethics complaints.

With four of seven members present, the board voted 3-1 Tuesday to send proposed changes to the city’s ethics code to the Rochester City Council.

The suggested changes would expand focus of potential complaints beyond conflicts of interest, which has been the primary focus of the city code.

After weeks of discussion for potential revisions, board member Peter Amadio suggested adding a pair of recommendations from a code-of-conduct template created by the League of Minnesota Cities Ethics Advisory Panel.

Under the proposed changes, an ethics violation would occur when a city council, city board or commission member knowingly engages in “discriminatory, retaliatory or offensive behavior” or acts in a way that is “disrespectful or that may foster a hostile and unprofessional environment” with fellow council members, city staff or members of the public.

“I’m very leery of trying to draw that line,” Board Chairwoman Faye Harris said as the lone dissenter to the proposal.

She said she worries words such as “offensive” and “disrespectful” are too broad, noting some people could feel disrespected simply because a council member disagreed with them.

Amadio said that’s where the Ethical Practices Board would come into play.

“That’s why we have seven people here to use our judgment,” he said.

Board members Jose Rico and Lin Gentling said they supported the proposal, noting a complaint would be reviewed by the board.

The board’s discussion followed comments from two Rochester residents who urged action in different degrees.

Mark Bransford, who has filed ethics complaints in the past, said he believes the proposal has merit.

“Rochester’s ethics codes, in their current form, primarily offer penalization for financial conflict of interest,” he told the board. “They must evolve or stay so narrowly scoped as to remain largely ineffectual for the citizens of Rochester who feel an official’s behavior has demonstrably denied them due process.”

Rochester resident Barry Skolnick, however, urged caution, noting clear lines and expectations must be part of the ethics code. Otherwise, he said it could limit the willingness to engage in public debate.

“I just don’t believe in chilling free speech,” he told the board.

The proposed ethics code changes must receive council approval before being enacted.

The council also is reviewing its own code of conduct, which City Attorney Jason Loos said has been put on hold until the city’s new mayor and two new council members are seated in January.