The conduct of City Council members is a blend of law and convention. Laws define the actions that council members cannot take while holding public office, and the requirements they must meet in order to take and hold office. Convention, the established norms of behavior and self-conduct, are based on matters of tradition and community standards.
On the legal side, for example, is the filing of reports; campaign finance and statements of financial interest must be filed periodically with the Secretary of State and Office of the City Clerk. Adherence to the Brown Act is another area of law. Failure to adhere to the law can result in censure, fine or prosecution.
Matters of convention are not as clear cut; just because historically council member actions have been conducted consistently, it is not mandated that all council member actions must conform to historical norms. Over time, cultural, technological and procedural approaches evolve and what was once conventional may no longer suit the times. The use of social media, for example, is largely a matter of convention.
Neither law nor convention, however, are an adequate substitute for ethics. A blatant breach of the law is of course unethical, but the law covering public servants is often gray, not black and white. Matters of bias, conflict of interest and the like are frequently matters of judgment, not law. The same can be said of convention; breaking with convention may be controversial and not illegal, but might violate standards of ethics.
City Councils often adopt an official ethics policy to fill the gap between matters of law and convention. The City of Sonoma, however, has not adopted an official ethics policy, and we believe it is past time for that to happen. An ethics policy impacts the gray areas, areas such as acceptance of gifts too small to report, matters of bias, use of language, treatment of fellow council members and the public, resolution of disputes, behavior outside of official duties, openness, maintaining public trust, meeting with constituents or lobbyists, confidentiality, honesty and full disclosure.
In Sonoma, the job of City Council member is filled not by professional politicians – though some have gone on to higher office – but generally by ordinary citizens. It is not a highly paid position (isn’t it just health insurance? or what?), and learning the ins-and-outs of government requires a great deal of work. This is all the more reason why an official ethics policy is beneficial and necessary; it’s too easy to get tangled up in the emotions of representing the community and too easy for well-intentioned citizen-council members to make ethical mistakes.
By detailing the types of issues and situations that typically arise, an ethics policy provides a “heads up” to elected officials who are often swept-up in complicated matters. The opinions of competent, professional city staff and the city attorney are not a substitute for council member awareness of the ethical traps to which elected officials typically fall prey.
We suggest the City Council initiate the drafting of an ethics policy. Those of other cities can be referenced as a guide, and customized as necessary to meet the needs of our city. Maintaining the public’s trust is at the heart of good governance, and attention to behaving ethically is critical to that end.
Sun Editorial Board