You could argue that ethics and morality are priceless qualities, but for the City of Santa Monica an independent review of its ethics rules will cost $420,000 plus a 5-percent contingency.

The City Council approved a scope of work by attorney John Hueston at its Dec. 15 meeting with an expectation that the work will be completed with 90 days.

The Council authorized hiring an independent advisor in November to address concerns about the way the city has handled ethics complaints related to the Oaks Initiative and the hiring/firing of Elizabeth Riel. In both cases, local advocates have argued the City’s actions have eroded public trust and potentially violated standards of behavior.

Hueston was chosen from among several potential candidates. He is a former division chief and assistant U.S. attorney. In his application, he said he had investigated Enron as part of a national task force, worked on corruption cases for the county of San Bernardino that resulted in criminal prosecutions, and has worked for multiple other municipal agencies.

His first task was to define his scope of work and the proposal approved last week included itemized charges for different tasks.

Hueston has asked for $125,000 to review the entire Riel termination case including analysis of documents, appropriate laws and witness interviews. Another $125,000 is attributed to an analysis of the Oaks Initiative including review of the laws strength, enforcement options, record keeping, violation reporting mechanisms and any proposed changes or amendments.

Hueston is charging $90,000 to identify municipal best practices.

“In light of any deficiencies identified in Parts I and II of the engagement as described above, we will research best practices as adopted by other municipalities and will interview city officials and community members to refine choices and determine potential fit,” said his proposal.

There is a $35,000 estimate to draft the formal report for public dissemination and $25,000 to participate in a public presentation of the findings.

Councilman Terry O’Day was the lone vote against the contract. O’Day has opposed hiring an advisor from the start, saying the cost is too high for what amounts to a review of documents that are already publicly available.

“At this cost, we’re looking at almost half the total cost of the incident that inspired this concept in the first place. Versus what we might have done which might have been a policy review and recommendation that would have been a tenth of the cost,” he said. “This is an extraordinary amount of money to spend on not a lot of insight.”

City Manager Rick Cole said he believes Hueston will do everything he can to stay within the budget but warned it’s entirely possible the cost could increase down the line.

“I want to make clear on his behalf that the scope is by no means exhaustive of everything that he will look at, these are the primary issues that he has identified,” said Cole.

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