City staff recommending changes to ethics committee procedure; one commissioner said committee should be dissolved

During tonight’s meeting, the City Commission will be asked to consider a change to the code pertaining to the city ethics committee.

The committee was established in 2017 and stemmed from a series of conflict of interest issues related to the Community Development Block Grant allocation cycle that year. The city has also revamped the CDBG process, created conflict disclosure forms and a training requirement for anyone on city boards or commissions in an effort to prevent future occurrences.

According to the city staff report, the committee was established “to help in ensuring that city officials and staff continue to comply with Mont. Code Ann. Title 2, Chapter 2, pertaining to code of conduct for public officials and the Great Falls Ethics Code, OCCGF Title 2, Chapter 21.”

As written currently, the committee is required to meet on the first Wednesday of the month in the commission chambers after a matter has been referred to the committee.

Staff is requesting a change to the provision to give staff and the committee more flexibility in scheduling the meetings and to remove the requirement that the meetings be held in the chambers so that the committee can meet in other areas of the building as needed.

Currently, the provision only allows the city manager to refer matters to the committee and staff is asking to change that language to also allow the city attorney to refer matters to the committee for situations when the city manager may be unable or unwilling to refer the issue.
In January, Jeni Dodd made a verbal complaint during a commission meeting regarding Commissioner Tracy Houck’s involvement with the local women’s march. She followed it up with a written complaint delivered to City Attorney Sara Sexe.
City ethics committee hears first complaint regarding Houck’s social media post

Because the complaint was against the city manager’s immediate supervisor, staff referred the complaint to the ethics committee for evaluation and determination.

The city hired Jordan Crosby of Ugrin Alexander Zadick, P.C. to represent and advise the Ethics Committee during the hearing.

It was the first complaint heard by the committee, which voted 2-1 to find there was an appearance of a violation of the ethics code, but also voted that no actual violation had occurred.

During that hearing, Commissioner Mary Moe spoke in defense of Houck’s post and said that commissioners speak at a variety of events and the committee shouldn’t fault someone for the perception of others.

Moe said she would see the issue differently if Houck was trying to sway how tax dollars are spent, but that she has not advocated for any particular ballot issue.

Moe said it would be a slippery slope to deem the post an actual ethical violation.

After that February hearing under the current ordinance and procedure for the committee, staff and outside legal counsel noted problems with the current process in that it was “cumbersome, confusing and unclear,” according to the staff packet.

During that February ethics hearing, staff and outside counsel noted specific problems including that no time was established for the accused to speak though time was set aside for the complaintant to speak. The accused could speak during public comment, but Crosby recommended adjusting the process to include time specifically for the accused to speak and for the committee to question the accused if it chose to do so.

Staff has since been working on recommendations to update and clarify the process, procedures and other ordinances related to the ethics committee and will present those recommendations at tonight’s commission work session.

Next the changes will be discussed with the ethics committee.

During the April 2 meeting, commissioner voted to accept the proposed changes on first reading and set the vote for the April 16 meeting.

At that time, Moe publicly said she wanted to dissolve the ethics committee since the infrequency of meetings would lead to an inexperienced board that wouldn’t allow for due process.

She also said she believed state law was sufficient to handle ethics issues and violations.
State law specifically allows local governments to create an ethics committee to handle ethics complaints.

The law states: “a local government may establish a three-member panel to review complaints alleging violations of this part by officers or employees of the local government. The local government shall establish procedures and rules for the panel. The members of the panel may not be officers or employees of the local government. The panel shall review complaints and may refer to the county attorney complaints that appear to be substantiated. If the complaint is against the county attorney, the panel shall refer the matter to the commissioner of political practices and the complaint must then be processed by the commissioner pursuant to 2-2-136.”