Ethics motion flops

Published 9:09 pm Thursday, March 19, 2015

After an addition to City Council’s code of ethics failed on a tied vote at Wednesday’s meeting, three of the four members who voted against it said they thought the addition was redundant and unnecessary.

The new section would have replaced a section repealed on Feb. 4, which required City Council members to vote yay or nay on each item unless they had an actual conflict or financial interest in the matter.

Seeing a benefit to being able to recuse themselves for the mere appearance of impropriety, the council members wanted to replace that section with the following:

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“The members of the city council may not vote on matters involving the consideration of their own official conduct, where their financial interests are involved, or where the council members feels there may be an appearance of impropriety.”

“I have come to learn that the words ‘shall’ and ‘may’ are very different things in legalese,” Councilman Mike Duman said before Wednesday’s vote, noting he believes a robust code of ethics increases public confidence and trust. “I, for one, have no reservations holding myself to a higher standard than that dictated by state code.”

State code prevents elected officials from voting on matters where they have a conflict or financial interest but says nothing about the appearance of impropriety.

Duman’s comments were the only discussion before the vote, but then it failed, with Vice Mayor Leroy Bennett and Councilmen Roger Fawcett, Don Goldberg and Tim Johnson opposed.

Duman later said he was embarrassed, perplexed, disheartened and confused that the addition had not been approved, and with so little discussion.

“If there was an objection to the original motion, why wasn’t it voiced?” he said. “One has to ponder as to why certain members of council voted against it.”

Bennett on Thursday declined to discuss his reasoning by phone, saying he didn’t want to create problems. But the other three who voted against it talked.

“We have a right to vote our conscience, and that’s what everyone did,” Goldberg said. “I felt like it was not needed to have this. I found no need to do more or add more or whatever.”

Fawcett said he thought the addition was “point blank, not necessary.”

“To me, it’s very self-explanatory,” he added. “I don’t need an instruction to be added to an existing code of ethics to tell me when I should or should not vote on matters. We’re just putting something in there that every councilman sitting up there knows.”

Tim Johnson also said the addition would have been redundant and wasteful of the council’s time.

“We are under the Virginia code, and we all have our ethics, and I am not in favor of redundancy and putting forth rules and regulations that are not necessary,” Johnson said. “We have got big eggs to fry. We have got so much to do that we do not need to be spending time on this kind of thing. We all have a code of ethics. I don’t think we need to put it in writing just to make it so.”

On Thursday, Duman said he is concerned that none of the four who voted against it explained why.

“We have an obligation to explain our thought process,” he said. “Why was there no discussion? I took extra time to explain all the reasons to do it … still no comment.”

Duman said he still believes the addition is important.

“Even though members of council may understand or feel like they know what the right thing to do is, our constituents, those individuals that we represent, should be provided with a code of conduct that they would expect to be adhered to by their elected officials,” he said.