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Aspen compiling code for ethics

Janet UrquhartAspen Times Staff Writer

A City Council member can wear a “Vote for Me” T-shirt during a televised council meeting, but a City Hall employee can’t wear a candidate’s button at work, according to a proposed code of ethics for Aspen’s city government.Most of the rules outlined in a new code chapter, Rules of Ethical Conduct, already exist as city ordinances and policies, according to City Attorney John Worcester. But, anyone looking for guidance won’t find many of the rules in the green binder that contains Aspen’s municipal code. Instead, the guidelines are scattered in various documents.A new, 18-page ordinance gathers all of the rules in one place for inclusion as a single chapter of the municipal code. They are also outlined in a user-friendly handbook Worcester has prepared for council members, city employees and appointees to boards and commissions.It will be distributed after the council has adopted the ordinance establishing the new code section, which it reviewed at a work session last week. The ordinance has not yet been scheduled for formal action.Ethical questions in city government have been at the forefront of late. Council members removed council candidate Bert Myrin from the Planning and Zoning Commission after questioning his conduct, while Myrin was pressing the city to reinvestigate a 5-year-old case involving an alleged conflict of interest by a city staffer.Neither incident prompted the new code chapter, which has been in the works for about a year, according to Worcester. Nor, he said, are the rules that would apply to either case changing with the reorganization of the rules into a chapter in the code book.Ethics is a “gray area,” Worcester conceded, and one that left council members scratching their heads periodically during last week’s discussion.Council members annually receive two passes to attend the Aspen Food & Wine Magazine Classic, for example, but regularly return the two passes they each receive from Carmike Cinemas, good for a year of free movies at Aspen’s Stage 3 Theatres.”I honestly feel it’s important for city officials to attend some of these important community functions,” Worcester said. Food & Wine is one of those events, he said, while the movie passes seem to “cross the line.””I have never heard a single complaint in this community about you being at Food and Wine or the Music Festival,” City Manager Steve Barwick told the council. “People expect you to be there. Part of our job is to be out there with the public.”But Mayor Helen Klanderud pondered whether council members should accept two passes to Food & Wine rather than one.”That’s a tough call,” Worcester said. “The test in your mind should be, would a reasonable person find it unacceptable to accept two tickets instead of one?”The section on gifts is taken from state law, Worcester said. But, while some municipalities set a monetary limit on items elected officials and others may accept, Aspen does not. The city allows council members to accept items of “perishable and nonpermanent value,” including meals, lodging, travel expenses and tickets to events.To be avoided are gifts that, if accepted, could be perceived as influencing an elected official’s decision or rewarding someone for a decision, Worcester explained.”This isn’t like your friend taking you out to dinner?” Councilman Terry Paulson asked.”It depends who your friend is,” Worcester replied.”You start pinning all this down, you’re not going to be able to move,” Klanderud complained. “You can overburden yourself with ethical concerns.”The ethics code addresses the conduct of City Council members, city officials and city employees, defining each group and establishing separate rules for each in some instances.It addresses things like the disclosure of confidential information, conflicts of interest, acceptance of gifts, use of city-owned assets and serving in dual capacities.It addresses how and when someone affiliated with city government can appear before the council or a board on an issue. Another section addresses when individuals associated with city government can do business with the city and under what circumstances.The code is lax enough, though, to accommodate Aspen’s small-town nature, where individuals serving as an elected official or board appointee might also have business with the city, Worcester said.For example, a representative of a firm for which a P&Z member also works can appear before the P&Z, but the commission member cannot participate in the discussion or vote. The commission member, however, can’t bring the firm’s business before the P&Z.Last year, a local architect who was a member of the Historic Preservation Commission stepped down in order to bring a project before the HPC, Worcester noted.Some rules are new to the code. For example, a council member will be prohibited from employment with the city for at least six months following the end of his or her term in office.Another new subsection would prohibit a city employee from serving as a Pitkin County commissioner.”I think there’s enough conflict so many times, that would be a problem,” Worcester said.Another new provision would prohibit city employees from wearing campaign buttons at work or displaying campaign material in their offices – a prohibition that would not extend to council members.The public might be offended by the campaign activity by city employees, but expects politicking by politicians, Worcester explained.”The council could, if they want, have the same rules apply to them,” he said.The 22-page handbook Worcester has also drafted contains examples of the kinds of ethical questions that he is often asked. It is the document city employees and officials will probably find most helpful, he predicted, and it won praise from Klanderud.”I think people sometimes don’t think of these things,” she said.[Janet Urquhart’s e-mail address is janet@aspentimes.com]


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