Code of silence

Published 10:39 pm Wednesday, February 4, 2015

Council fails to set limit on post-meeting disclosures

City Council members on Wednesday rejected a proposal that they place a new subsection in their code of ethics that would remind them they’re not supposed to talk about what happens in closed session.

The vote was tied with four votes on each side, meaning the proposal failed. Vice Mayor Bennett and Councilmen Roger Fawcett, Don Goldberg and Tim Johnson voted against it.

“I can’t vote in favor of this right now,” Tim Johnson said. “Council’s been living without this for how many years? The appearance of this is that we’re denying the public something they have a right to. I have a real problem with it.”

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The failed vote came on a motion from Councilman Mike Duman. His proposal would have amended the original wording to make it clear that only the items lawfully exempted from discussion in an open meeting, and cited in the motion to enter the closed meeting, would be expected to be kept confidential.

“We will keep things in closed session that belong there,” he said. “If anything was discussed in closed session that was inappropriate, there’s no guarantee of confidentiality.”

Duman said the catalyst for looking at the code of ethics was a separate item that stated council members could abstain from a vote for the mere appearance of impropriety, in addition to abstaining for an actual conflict of interest as they are required to do by state law.

As the vote on that addition was the same as the one regarding closed meetings, it also failed, despite the fact more council members seemed to be willing to vote in favor of it.

Mayor Linda T. Johnson said City Attorney Helivi Holland keeps council members from straying during closed sessions.

“It used to be far worse, far worse than it is today,” Johnson said. If anything happens during a closed session that is not allowed, “we should not vote to certify, and we should be happy to go out and tell it,” she said.

Fawcett challenged why the understanding that council members shouldn’t talk about what happens in closed session needs to be written.

“If this is a very important part, where’s it been?” he said. “Why, all of a sudden, this crops up to go into the code? It kind of baffles me.”

Councilman Johnson suggested it was because of the three new council members.

“This is really a slam,” he said. “You might not think it’s a slam, but it’s a slam.”

But Mayor Johnson felt differently.

“We took an oath. I don’t think there’s any harm in having it written that we will honor it.”

Bennett said he believed a comment he made after a closed session in January — telling others that the council talked about “communication” with the city manager — was the reason the other council members wanted to make the change.

Holland noted the proposal, even if it had passed, would have had no legal ramifications.

“It would never prohibit anybody from speaking, because you all have First Amendment rights,” she said.