During a City Council meeting last week, a ranking member of the Economic Development Corp. Board of Directors made a statement in passing during testimony before council members that the EDC had adopted its own Code of Ethics and had it read into the record of a meeting on July 20.
This revelation was made in a hurried response to questions from city council regarding decisions the EDC had made the week prior regarding the dispensation of funds for local event sponsorships.
The EDC directors are appointed and serve at the pleasure of the elected city council. The monies they oversee are not their personal funds, although through the years the attitudes and actions of some members appeared to be an indication that they thought otherwise.
The EDC was established in an election by local voters for the purpose of using revenue generated by a portion of the local sales tax to encourage economic growth in Liberty Hill.
The EDC’s sudden interest last month in establishing a code of ethics got us to thinking.
There’s always been a role in government for self-policing. Of course there are fiduciary duty guidelines as well as a well-known state criminal code to protect the local taxpayers from the overt abuses by any errant political players and public employees.
However, there certainly seems to be a void when it comes to the sometimes covert and perhaps even unintended conflicts of interest that can arise in a small community where the watchdogs are often few and the intimidation factors loom large.
So, it’s good that the EDC has decided to adopt a code of ethics. In fact, it would be prudent for elected leaders to follow suit and adopt a city ordinance that would apply to them, as well as their committee appointees and all city employees.
Adding a layer of transparency to public servants is needed now more than ever.
It just makes sense that all city commissions, committees and employees be covered by a code of ethics. In our research, we found that most cities have one — many of which can be viewed at www.TexasEthics.com, a website developed by the City of Liberty Hill’s law firm, Bojorquez Law Firm, PC., of Austin. The site’s description states it is “a database granting easy access to city officials looking to improve how city business is done.”
Neighboring cities have developed ethics rules that seem extremely thorough. The Liberty Hill Council should do the same and establish an Ethics Committee inviting input from the public to develop a code for Liberty Hill. Once an ordinance is adopted, the ethics committee could continue to serve, fielding questions and complaints of possible violations.
Currently, voting members of the council, boards and committees decide for themselves when they think it’s time to abstain from a vote because of a potential conflict of interest. Some of these are more obvious than others, but the public has a right to know in advance if a decision maker is conflicted and may not be voting on certain issues.
In this fast growth area where so many stand to gain something — possibly at the expense of others — we believe it’s in the public’s best interest that potential conflicts are on record before an official takes a seat at a dais, before a discussion ever takes place, and before a vote is ever taken. In fact, every application for council, for committee appointments, and even for employment should contain a disclosure form. That currently is not the case.
A conflict of interest declaration should identify all companies where the elected or appointed official, or employee, has a financial interest, including those affiliated with them by familial relationships.
The legal document should also ask them to identify familial and business relationships with others serving a role in government.
Elected officials, candidates for public office, appointed volunteers and city staff should declare under oath that they do not have a political or financial conflict of interest or stand to profit in any way from the decisions they make, or the information they gain while doing the business of the taxpayers.
Along with criminal background checks, these disclosure documents should be updated annually. The City website should make disclosure documents available to the citizens. Taxpayers and voters should be able to have confidence in the integrity of those in government, and know that the decisions they make are not influenced by their personal financial interests or the agendas of business partners or family members.
Part of growing up means being held accountable. For a city trying to grow up, Liberty Hill needs an additional layer of transparency.
While some elected officials might argue that they are accountable to voters at election time, that may not be true when there are no choices. In Liberty Hill, for example, there have been no contested races for council or Mayor since 2014.
For those who doubt the public’s interest in maintaining solid ethics and transparency in local government, they need only to look back a few years when these same folks believed that government was working against local business investors and economic growth. Those on the inside now were, a short time ago, on the outside looking in.
Even now, everyone is only one election away from being back on the outside.
In the circles and cycles of local politics and government, it’s far better to err on the side of openness. After all, it’s the public’s business.