Letter: Ethics exception for council members has to change
It had to be a mistake. The May 2 Aspen Times and the May 4 Aspen Daily News published a letter to the editor endorsing a mayoral candidate (“Skadron has a track record of success”). The letter was signed “Ann Mullins, Councilwoman, Aspen City Council.”
Aspen has an ethics code. As residents, city employees are free to engage in politics on their own time. City employees are never permitted to use their city titles to endorse candidates or ballot measures. That’s because city employees work for all of us, not just for the residents who agree with that employee’s views. When a city employee endorses a candidate or takes a stand on a ballot issue, the use of his or her city title makes it look like the city stands behind his or her position. (Example: “I am the city’s community development director; vote for Referendum 1.” Not permitted.)
Naturally, I thought the same rule had to apply to City Council members. In fact, if the rule makes any sense, it should apply especially to City Council members. When a City Council member speaks on a ballot matter using his or her title, it doesn’t look like just a part of city government supports a position on that measure. It looks like the entire city government supports it.
That’s why I was so surprised by the way Ann signed her endorsement. Why hadn’t she simply signed her name like everyone else? It’s obvious. She thought adding “Councilwoman, Aspen City Council” would add gravitas to her endorsement. She was using the public authority that residents had bestowed on her to add weight to her private political point of view.
I thought the ethics code had been violated. Imagine my disbelief when I was shown a loophole in the ethics rules just for City Council. Under this loophole, City Council members can “use their official titles and make reference to their connection with the city in political advertisements, endorsements or speeches.” In other words, they can appropriate the weight of their positions as public officials to advance their personal political opinions. Can you think of a single good reason why?
That has to be changed.