EDC, Council members talk ethics
By MIKE EDDLEMAN
In an effort to ensure the board remains in compliance with regulations and sends the right message to the community it serves, Liberty Hill Economic Development Corporation (EDC) Board President Bill Chapman called a workshop last week on a variety of issues touching on ethics.
“I want our board of directors to be really clear about this,” he said. “I want it to understand what is a conflict of interest, when does it occur and what do you do about it. I wanted secondly for the public to be aware that we’re an ethical board, we’re going to keep our standards high and that we will be above board at all times.”
The hour-long workshop, presented by City of Liberty Hill legal counsel Dottie Palumbo, covered issues including open meetings rules, open records, ethics, conflict of interest and economic development specific tools.
Four of the seven EDC directors – Chapman, John Clark, Jamie Etzkorn and Jack Harkrider – attended the workshop, as well as Mayor Rick Hall, Council Members Ron Rhea, Liz Rundzieher, EDC Director Lance Dean, City Administrator Greg Boatright, Planning Director Sally McFeron, Finance Director Michel Sorrell and City Secretary Barbara Zwernemann.
Not in attendance from the EDC Board were Johnny Johnston, Eric Bailey and Chad Pirtle. Council Members Wendell McLeod, Troy Whitehead and Liz Branigan were not in attendance, though it was not a called meeting specifically for the City Council.
Many of the regulations have critical nuances to be aware of. Open meetings rules was one example addressed by Palumbo, looking at the difference in a gathering of board or council members in relation to the purpose of that gathering.
“A gathering plus a governing body is not necessarily a violation of the law,” she said. “But having a meeting without proper notice, that is a violation of the law. So when you meet to discuss business and there is a quorum it has to be under a properly posted agenda.”
Governing bodies can be in violation of the Open Meetings Act even without gathering all in one place at one time.
“What I tell my clients is, if two people get together and discuss something, that’s not a violation of the act, but the Attorney General says if two get together, then one of them goes and gets together with another member and it keeps going, then that is a walking quorum and that violates the Act,” Palumbo said. “On the municipal side, we’ve always told our clients if you’re just getting information, you’re meeting with somebody, and you’re not trying to convince them to vote a certain way, that just meeting and giving somebody information isn’t a violation of the act.”
When it comes to posted agendas, Palumbo said more information is better.
“Remember to put in as much detail as you can so the public will know what you are talking about,” she said, saying minutes should be handled similarly. “Make sure you get the substance of what was discussed in the meeting. It doesn’t have to be a verbatim transcript, but it should be enough to let the public know what happened, but most importantly, so you can go back and see what transpired.”
The law is clear on what a board or council can meet on in executive session.
“You can go into a properly called executive session and receive legal advice, to discuss personnel issues, the transfer of real property – either purchase or sale – gifts, economic development issues or security issues,” Palumbo said.
The body may discuss these issues in closed session, but all decisions must be made in open session.
With everyone relying more on electronic devices for communication, Palumbo reminded those in attendance they should limit the amount of public business they conduct on their own devices or risk the public having access to what’s on those devices should a public information request be made.
“Remember that if members of the public submit a public information request, you may have to hand over that information,” she said. “If it has city business on it, just because it is your personal cell phone or your computer, it would be something a member of the public could get.”
Palumbo also covered rules for dual office holding, nepotism and incompatibility, which focuses on potential conflicting loyalties.
“That comes from a common law court case opinion where there might be a conflict for you to hold that second office because you might have conflicting loyalties, like if the second office answered to the first,” Palumbo said.
The EDC has its own code of ethics, spelling out the principles of personal integrity, a pledge of fairness and honesty, a respect for confidentiality and an effort to maintain transparency where possible with the public.
“Currently, it is not required that you sign the code of ethics the board has set for itself,” Palumbo said.