Mayor Sue Himmelrich believes Santa Monica’s current Code of Conduct does not clearly apply to some of the city’s elected officials and lacks proper enforcement provisions, so city leaders are beginning a process to create an ethics code that aligns with drafts adopted in cities like Vallejo and Irvine.
Himmelrich asked for the matter to be placed on the agenda so it can be discussed at last week’s City Council meeting.
“This is the second time I’ve brought this forward. The first time I brought this forward, what came back was the current — what I would call — the aspirational Ethics Code for our employees,” she said last week, referring to a values-based ethics system that was adopted in 2015 as part of a broader ethics debate citywide, which was initiated in the wake of resident concerns about a civil employment lawsuit, Elizabeth Riel v. City of Santa Monica and enforcement of the Oaks Initiative.
In 2016, after hiring John C. Hueston to examine the conduct of city employees during the hiring and firing of Elizabeth Riel and enforcement of the City’s ethics laws, Council formally approved a values-based system of behavior that was incorporated into multiple city documents.
At the time, Council touted the move to adopt a code of conduct as a first step, but city leaders never returned to shore up the enforcement provisions since they have remained relatively clear of any issues.
But the most recent iteration of Council has had a number of public spats. One notable instance was Himmelrich calling Councilmember Oscar de la Torre a coward following an abstention from the vote on Main Street closures, which occurred just a few hours before Council began discussing the ethics-related agenda item.
“And I have to say, in view of our recent issue with our closed session hiring procedure, I think we need a code of conduct and ethics; most other cities have it. We need a set of rules that are easy to follow and are clean to enforce,” Himmelrich said. “So, that’s why I’m moving this forward.”
Phil Brock agreed that Council should move forward with instituting a more enforceable ethics code.
“I think this is a valuable exercise that will help clarify the ethics rules for City Council since we just had a breach,” Brock said. “We need to have clear rules, clear guidelines to follow… And I believe it’s good for our Council.”
Oscar de la Torre noted some state statutes protect closed session discussions. “And we can’t supersede state law,” he said, “so I just want to make sure we do that research when crafting an ordinance at the local level.”