March 15, 2023 |
Photo – Rawlins City Hall – Bigfoot99 file photo
The rift between some members of the Rawlins city council and the mayor was on display during a work session on ethics last week.
The Wyoming Association of Municipalities requires all council members to complete a local government leadership program by the summer of 2024 or risk being removed from office. The program consists of eight required classes on managing a municipality, such as handling a town’s finances.
City Attorney Gwendolyn Wade presented material from WAM’s ethics and integrity program prior to Tuesday’s regular council meeting. Wade said the governing body must abide by three types of ethical standards to maintain the public trust.
Wade began the meeting by defining what a conflict of interest is. She said a council member cannot use their position to influence others or obtain special treatment. Wade said even the appearance of a conflict of interest must be avoided.
Attorney Wade said if a person interprets a council member’s actions as a conflict of interest, it should be considered as such. A council member’s obligation is to ensure that their actions are honest and transparent. Councilwoman Tonya Lewman asked if a council member’s perceived bias toward a private company should disqualify them from voting on an agenda item that includes the entity.
Wade said she would treat such a situation the way a judge deals with jury selection. If the person says they can set aside their personal feelings and be objective, Wade said she would allow them to participate in a vote.
Wade reiterated the point that if a council member engages in something which could be seen as unethical, they should distance themselves as quickly as possible. Mayor Terry Weickum said a distinction should be made from a real conflict and a phony one, saying that putting words in his mouth does not make them true.
Wade said she feels comfortable using the judge and juror example in the case Councilwoman Lewman cited. The city attorney said a lack of clear rules leaves a lot to interpretation. Discernment is required.
Wade said it is an ethical violation for government employees to use city resources for personal use. She gave an example of using the city’s copy machine to print fliers for a private business. Attorney Wade also said a council member may not discuss private information with anyone.
Councilwoman Lewman said she asked Rawlins interim city manager Tom Sarvey to send her pictures of the snow-covered landfill. She said she posted the pictures on social media to show people the condition of the dump. Councilwoman Lewman asked if her actions violated the ethics code. Attorney Wade said the release of information provided specifically to the council is a violation.
Mayor Weikum said the city’s public information officer Mira Miller should be solely responsible for providing information to the public.
Another area of ethical concerns, council members are permitted to receive gifts valued under $20. Wade said it is ok to accept a cup of coffee from someone if the drink doesn’t come with the expectation of a political favor in return. Any item over $20 must be disclosed to the city and is subject to an ethics investigation. Council members also are not permitted to benefit from an investment, in a person or company, contracted by the city. If the city’s attorneys discover a council member has a personal stake, the contract is immediately torn up.
Wrapping up the work session, attorney Wade reminded the council the only authority they have comes from public trust. She said to avoid any actions which may be perceived as unethical.
Wade said the council’s decisions are between right and right. Both sides can be correct on a matter, but it’s the council’s job to choose the decision that most benefits the city.