Step by step, City Hall is working toward a clearer, stronger, more robust set of anti-corruption laws.

Council approved clarifications and guidelines for its rules as their May 10 meeting and previewed some of the more substantial changes that will likely become a ballot initiative this November.

The May 10 decision adopted proposals put forward by attorney John C. Hueston in a report he issued in April of this year.

Council hired Hueston to prepare a report on two related topics, conduct of city employees during the hiring/firing of Elizabeth Riel and enforcement of the City’s ethics laws known as the Oaks Initiative.

Riel was offered a job with the city but had that offer withdrawn after Councilwoman Pam O’Connor complained. The report said O’Connor’s actions could constitute a breach of the City charter but the Council chose not to implement any formal sanctions.

Hueston was also asked to review the Oaks rules. Citizens have filed Oaks complaints but the complaints were not acted on due to concerns in the City Attorney’s office over enforcement objectivity and constitutionality.

The report concluded the law is enforceable but recommend revisions that would address some of confusion regarding the law’s intent and constitutionality.

Last week, Council approved clarifications and guidelines that deal with the law as it was passed including clarifying definitions of public officials, clarifying the method of determining a public benefit, narrowing definitions of campaign advantages and creating a more readable, easily understood document.

The proposals were passed without changes, but not without conversation.

The new rules apply to whoever has “final authority” over approving a city contract and the council questioned if that would limit Oaks’ scope in a way that excluded employees who might not have final approval but who could have had significant influence over the process.

City Manager Rick Cole said contract approvals have significant checks and balances in place that prevent anyone, including him, from making a unilateral decision. He said the expectation should be on the senior staff to ensure the system was clean and that ultimately it made sense to have Oaks apply to elected or appointed officials, the city manager and department heads, but not to the lower level staff.

“The spirit of Oaks is what we’re all trying to restore and focus on,” he said. “It’s possible that somewhere buried somewhere in the city’s organization chart, someone might have some influence over the selection of a vendor and Oaks is really designed to make sure that’s transparent and the person can’t march of and take a position with that company as soon as the contract is signed. I think that’s better enforced by the city manager and department heads under the charter than to reach down and figure out who had influence over what contract.”

He said alternatives that enforced Oaks further down the staffing ladder would create havoc due to record keeping and subjectivity concerns while also going against the spirit of the rules.

Several councilmembers began to ask about provisions of the Oaks rules that appear to bar non-profit directors whose organizations receive city money, such as individuals that sit on the boards of neighborhood councils, from making political donations.

City Attorney Marsha Moutrie said one of the criticisms of Oaks when it was first drafted was that the law penalized volunteer efforts but as the law is now incorporated into the City Charter, fixing that problem and others would require a public vote.

She said her office has begun thinking about a ballot initiative for the November election that will hopefully address those lingering concerns.

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