The City Council will debate revisions to its anti-corruption laws at tonight’s meeting, following recommendations made in the recently released ethics report.
The May 10 discussion will focus on one element of a larger report issued by attorney John Hueston and the discussion coincides with the city’s rollout of a larger ethics awareness campaign.
Hueston’s report looked at two related problems, the circumstances around the termination of Elizabeth Riel and the City’s enforcement of its existing ethics rules. The report concluded actions by Councilwoman Pam O’Connor during the Riel situation could have violated the City Charter and the Council discussed their disappointment with her at their last meeting but chose not to pursue formal sanctions.
In discussing the City’s ethics provisions, known as the Oaks Initiative, Hueston’s team concluded the law is enforceable at the local level. The report said Council should take action to revise, refine and update the law to improve clarity. It recommended the Criminal Division of the City Attorney’s office pursue complaints or that the city hire a special prosecutor when necessary.
The May 10 item is limited to the revisions, refinements and updates.
According to the staff report, a revised definition of the term “public official” would include, but not be limited to, Councilmembers, Commission members, the City Manager and City Manager’s designees, and department heads and their designees. It would cover individuals that make the final approvals on the disposition of public benefits.
“The proposed guidelines would expressly exclude those making recommendations, acting within a series of requirement approvals but not making the last approval, persons approving as to form, content, process or execution only, and hearing officers who are not City employees,” said the report.
The proposal modifies the time period for defining a public benefit and provides a list of exclusions.
When defining illegal gifts, the revised rules would exclude gifts that are already prohibited by other laws or gifts provided by the city itself. Persons or entities receiving benefits would include anyone with a 10 percent stake in a company or those that acquire a 10 percent stake. The law would not apply to the exercise of a ministerial duty or awarding of a public benefit made because of an emergency.
In addition to refining the Oaks rules, City Hall is also making it easier to report potential ethics violations via the establishment of a new reporting hotline. The public can now report violations by phone (844-4-SMETHIC), email (firstname.lastname@example.org) or online (ethicshotline.org/santamonica).
Council adopted a values based code of ethics in November of last year and several councilmembers have asked for an easy way for the public to report potential violations.
Councilwoman Sue Himmelrich said she has seen the value of tip lines while working in the private sector.
“So in a $650 million, 2,000-plus employee enterprise such as Santa Monica, we would be irresponsible to not utilize the most effective form of detection and prevention known to us,” she said. “This, together with our more clear guidelines for accepting gifts and contributions under the Oaks initiative and the impending registration of lobbyist will shed sunlight on some of the opaque workings of our government. I am still looking forward to the implementation of financial reporting in checkbook level detail as has been implemented in many jurisdictions.”
In announcing the tip line, City Hall said staff is also coordinating a rollout of ethics resources for staff to help communicate the expectations.
“Examples of new resources include an Administrative Instruction outlining how ethics investigations will be handled, an intranet page with ethics use cases and other resources for staff, and ongoing training for all staff,” said the report.
For more information on the Hueston report or the new ethics hotline, visit www.smgov.net/Departments/CMO.