New code of conduct to guide county officials | AspenTimes.com

New code of conduct to guide county officials

Janet Urquhart
Aspen Times Staff Writer

A new code of conduct is in the works to guide the actions of Pitkin County public officials, including the elected commissioners, advisory board members and high-ranking government staffers.

A short-handed Board of County Commissioners adopted the code on first reading Wednesday by a 3-0 vote. A public hearing on the document and, potentially, its final adoption, is scheduled Nov. 6. Patti Clapper, board chairwoman, is hoping all five commissioners are present when the rules of conduct come up for a final vote.

“This is a significant enough document,” she said.

The code of conduct has been in the works for more than a year. It has already been reviewed by all of the county’s advisory boards and commissions, made up primarily of citizen appointees. “By and large, they were all very supportive,” said Debbie Quinn, assistant county manager.

In its preamble, the code states: “The citizens of Pitkin County are entitled to fair, ethical and accountable local government that earns the public’s confidence in the integrity of public officials.”

To that end, the code seeks to ensure that public officials are fair and impartial in their actions, use public office for the public good and not personal gain, and conduct deliberations in the open and in an atmosphere of “respect and civility.”

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The code contains 18 sections, addressing such topics as conduct at public meetings, conflicts of interest, gifts and favors, absenteeism and confidential information.

“Is there room for civil disobedience here?” asked Commissioner Jack Hatfield, looking over a section that calls for public officials to obey the laws of the country, state and county. “Civil disobedience sometimes is an important way to send a message.”

The code can’t restrict anyone’s constitutional rights, Clapper responded.

Under a section on conduct of public meetings, the code reads: “Public officials shall prepare themselves for public issues, listen courteously and attentively to all public discussions before the body, and focus on the business at hand.”

Under the section on communication, the code calls for public officials to disclose communications they have had on a matter outside the proceedings and to avoid communications on a pending matter outside official hearings and public meetings.

Hatfield pressed for further work on that section, to clarify whether officials should avoid communications with applicants who have a pending matter before the county or should avoid discussing a pending issue with anyone.

“I in no way have a desire to prohibit a board member from talking to the public,” he said. “I draw the line with applicants.”

The code also requires each of the county’s advisory boards to adopt bylaws, which the commissioners must also approve. The bylaws are to include a policy on absenteeism.

For commissioners, the code states: “Members of the Board of County Commissioners shall make every effort to attend all scheduled meetings. If they are unable to attend any meeting they shall advise the county manager.”

Enforcing the code, as it applies to the commissioners themselves and members of the appointed boards, is up to the commissioners.

“The enforcement among yourselves is discretionary ? with you,” Quinn told the commissioners.

The code reads: “The Board of County Commissioners may impose sanctions on commissioners whose conduct does not comply with the county’s ethical standards, such as reprimand, public or private censure, loss of seniority or committee assignment, or budget restriction. The Board of County Commissioners may impose sanctions, up to and including removal of members of volunteer citizen boards and county hearing officers from office, for violation of this [code].”

County section leaders may be subject to disciplinary action, including dismissal, for violating the code.

In addition to commissioners and board members, the code will apply to various staff members, including the county manager, assistant county manager, and county attorney. It will also govern the actions of the directors of: aviation, community development, open space and trails, human resources/risk management, public works, community relations/human services, finance and administrative services, as well as the county librarian and office/records manager.

Commissioners conceded they cannot force other elected county officials ? the sheriff, clerk and recorder, and the assessor ? to abide by the code, but they agreed they can ask those individuals to do so.