City of Aspen’s ethics code up for some changes
September 21, 2017
The 2015 departures of three officials from Aspen government into the private sector are a driving reason for the city attorney to seek advice from City Council on whether ethics regulations need to be fine-tuned or changed.
At a work session Tuesday, city attorney Jim True made a presentation to City Council regarding the city's Rules of Ethical Conduct, passed by the Mayor Helen Klanderud-led council in June 2003.
True was seeking input concerning potential alterations to the rules, chiefly those pertaining to Aspen's elected officials and policy-making employees after they leave the city and work in the private sector.
"I think overall … our ethics code is fairly comprehensive and it has worked well with the city," True said, adding that "I can't speak of any violations of the code" by former city employees.
He added: "I think, in general, that we are a very ethical organization, and I want to emphasize that."
Even so, the 2015 transitions by three public officials — whom True referred to as "high-level city employees" — into the private sector resulted in some individuals questioning "the extent and effectiveness of the City's regulations regarding former officials," True wrote in a memo to the City Council.
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True did not identify the three who left the city for the private sector, nor did their names emerge during the work session.
There is little mystery about their identities, however.
In December 2015, Community Development Director Chris Bendon and Historic Preservation Officer Sara Adams tendered their resignations and launched the planning firm Bendon Adams LLC. And in August of the same year, Dwayne Romero joined Mark Hunt's development team as a consultant on the Base2 Lodge project, one that he voted in favor of the previous June as a city councilman before a citizen referendum forced it to a public vote resulting in defeat.
Some public criticism ensued about the appearances of such moves — critics wondered if Adams and Bendon's work for the city gave them an improper in with developers, while others cast skepticism about Romero's timing.
The ethics regulations, however, had them in the clear.
Exiting members of City Council cannot work for the Aspen government within six months of leaving their positions, but that is the extent of their limitations under the ethics code.
City employees, however, are required to take a six-month refrain from doing business in the private sector when they have a conflict of interest or the appearance of one. Former employees also face "permanent disqualification," as written in the ethics code, from doing business with the city if the matter is related to previous "direct official action" they took as a civic employee.
True said he worked with the departing employees from 2015 during their transition and "came up with a general understanding of what those employees could and couldn't do."
Council members said outgoing elected officials should be held to the same standard as outgoing city employees; in other words, have a cooling-off period before appearing in front of City Council or advisory boards as a member of the private sector in a role of influence.
The duration of the cooling-off periods is another matter the city is exploring.
True suggested making it two years for former policy-makers — council members, city managers, assistant city managers, the Community Development director, city attorney and assistant city attorney — when it comes to working in a representative capacity for a land-use application on which they had previous influence.
A one-year refrain would be enforced on any other issue before the city, True's memo said. Those changes would be similar to ethics codes for Pitkin County and other jurisdictions, he said.
Additionally, True offered that former city policy-makers would be forbidden for six months from attempting to "influence or communicate directly with any City staff member or other elected or appointed City official on any pending or proposed matter on behalf of a third party."
Jessica Garrow, the current director of Community Development, said the six-month break should be the minimum amount of time. She said one year would be more appropriate, because of the "staff comfort level" of dealing with former supervisors.
True said one year might be too long, while Councilwoman Ann Mullins noted that "you can't underestimate the working dynamics."
Further muddying the ethical code's waters was True's contention that Garrow could be disqualified from ever landing a job in her field in Aspen's private sector because of her integral role in the overhaul of the city's land-use code.
As currently written, the ethics law, if broadly interpreted, would permanently disqualify Garrow from working on land-use applications in the private sector, True said. Other outgoing employees could be affected, too, he said.
Questions arose about whether the code is too rigid for former city employees.
"Isn't it an infringement on the right of someone to employ themselves?" Councilman Ward Hauenstein asked.
True, however, said the intent is to make the ethics code less vague and more direct.
"Whether you change this (the ethics code) or not, those overall goals are protected," he said.
True said he plans to work on the code changes and bring it to the council in the future for a first reading.