Palm Coast Mayor David Alfin is looking for the City Council to adopt a Code of Conduct for itself. The council is divided on the matter. The split is not over the wording of the proposed code, which drew few objections, but over the document’s implications, its lack of enforceability, and the precedent it may be setting, treating elected officials as city employees–which they are not.
“We as city council members, elected, work hand in hand in the same building, in the same space, on a regular basis with city staff,” Alfin said. “Every city staff, every employee of the city of Palm Coast, does undergo this exact same check. So I’m looking to support that effort and have city staff understand that we are hand in hand with the same requirements that they have to work together in the same space, every day. It’s really that simple for me.”
To Alfin, who works closest with administrative staff, it’s a matter of consistency, even though the elected are not considered employees.
The two-page document Palm Coast City Attorney Neysa Borkert distributed to the mayor and council at this morning’s workshop was a proposed ordinance titled “Code of Conduct for Council Members.” Alfin asked Borkert to draft it, though that became clear only well into the discussion, when Council member Kathy Heighter asked who had initiated the document. By then, the council had been meeting for two and a half hours, the previous two hours devoted to other aspects of council rules and procedures. (See: “Palm Coast Council Will Expand Public Comment Segments at Workshops, Even at Risk of Epic Meetings.”)
In the main, council members already abide by the proposal’s basic tenets: attend all meetings, be prepared to discuss all items (some council members do more homework than others, a reality on all elected boards that readily makes weak links apparent), ask questions. The code goes on to set out “professional conduct” rules: administrative questions should go through the city manager, legal questions through the attorney. Council members “should not give direction to City staff” or, as stated in the city charter, interfere with employees’ duties. (See the full document at the foot of the article.)
Council members didn’t have an issue with those bullet points, which appear on the first page of the document, saying they already follow those rules. The second page proved more problematic to some of them.
The proposal states: “Members shall act in accordance with collective City Council decisions and shall not act unilaterally or contrary to City Council’s decisions.” And: “Members should act professionally, with respect and dignity toward each other, and refrain from personal attacks. Members should conduct themselves courteously toward each other, City Staff, the City Manager, the City Attorney, citizens and residents.”
Violators will be deemed to have acted “outside of the course and scope of their authority,” and could receive a letter of warning, if a majority of the council agrees, with further violations subjecting the council member to “public reprimand,” “immediate censure” and referral to the Ethics Commission “where appropriate.” (The Ethics Commission only hears cases involving public officials profiting from their position; the type of behavioral misconduct that has occurred many times on the council in the last few years would not qualify as Ethics Commission fodder.)
The document ends with a pledge, and a line for a signature.
“The point of signing something like this is accountability,” Council member Theresa Pontieri said. “I don’t see anybody having an issue with following this. But I think signing it and holding ourselves accountable is important as well.” Heighter initially agreed, so did Klufas, and with Alfin proposing the document, it looked as if it would sail to Borkert’s desk for a final rewrite in the form of an ordinance.
Then Council member Danko spoke up. “A warning letter. I’m not quite sure,” he said. “The warning comes from the public when you’re an elected official. And that’s how you deal with it. The warning’s going to be, ‘they don’t like me anymore, and I’m not going to get reelected.’ So we already do this. I’m good leaving things the way they are.”
Alfin was quick on the draw to detect consensus from the other members. “I signed mine,” he said, to Borkert’s hold-your-horses reaction She wanted more feedback and suggestion, which opened the door to more skepticism, especially when Alfin’s next proposal–a criminal $35 background check for candidates, at candidates’ expense–was put forth, as it had previously, with no success.
Pontieri herself became a bit skeptical–not with signing the document, but with its stated sanctions in case of violations. Klufas had the same reservations: he’d sign, but didn’t see the worth of the enforceability provision.
What rankled Danko, was the overlord role of government on elected officials. He’s right, to the extent that while the elected are not above the law–they cannot break the law, 91 recent allegations about a certain former president notwithstanding–they do not answer to each other, or to their government administration, or to the local court system. They answer to voters. Danko, with remarkable calm, made the points again and again: “Any aspect of government that requires elected officials to do this or do that is to me just not the place. It’s the public that makes these determinations.” He was not in favor of “crossing the line” from being elected to being employees.
Danko was even more strongly opposed to the provision calling on council members to fall in line “with collective City Council decisions,” the kind of wording that suggests elected officials have no freedom to speak their mind in contradiction of a majority, once that majority has taken a position on an issue. That, of course, is never the case, though local governments–the School Board routinely imposes those gag orders on its own members–not infrequently take that route.
Borkert gave an example of a county commissioner who was at the losing end of a land use decision, and who decided to lobby the governor’s cabinet, where the item was on appeal. “That was in direct conflict with the decision of the county commission,” Borkert said. ” that was an instance where that Commissioner went out and took positive steps to go against what the commissioner has decided.” The attorney made a difference between taking those steps and merely speaking one’s opinion, a difference Danko did not detect. (Later in the discussion Heighter migrated closer to Danko’s side of the argument.)
As for backgrounding candidates or the elected, that’s also the public’s and the media’s role, not government’s, he said. The city couldn’t even take any action regarding an individual’s criminal background. Nor could council members. Only the governor or a recall can remove an individual from office.
“Unless something pops up that preclude you from being in office, then I don’t see the point of this,” Pontieri, an attorney who battled her own issues with background fodder during her election, said. To have the city document background checks would end up being a potential deterrent to some candidates running, she said–not because they might have committed disqualifying acts, but because some non-disqualifying criminal issues could be portrayed as graver than they were. “Because that could have been said about me,” Pontieri said. “And I said, No, I’m going to own up to what I did 20 years ago and deal with it. So I think that this is being used as a deterrent. That really has no teeth at the end of the day.”
As the discussion went on, Alfin’s consensus frayed. He recognized it, and turned to the attorney for guidance. She split the two issues, the backgrounding being a dead letter, and proposed rewriting the Code of Conduct and submitting it again as a resolution.
As for signing the pledge, it would be voluntary. It would have to be, the attorney said. Danko called it a “political weapon,” enabling anyone to attack a council person for not signing the document–even though he agrees with everything in the document. Alternately, Pontieri suggested, some of the provisions in the code that aren’t already included in state law or in the charte could be added to the charter.
But that may be one or two elections too far: Borkert will bring back a new draft of the Code of Conduct in early November.