What conclusions should a citizen draw when elected officials create a bureaucratic system which discourages and threatens citizens who have the temerity to suggest that something might be wrong? When a model ethics code drawn up by consultants is repealed and replaced with one that allows five “friends of the Commissioners” to dismiss an ethics complaint unless four out of five vote to pursue it?
The changes to the Mt. Juliet City Ethics Code, enacted in September of 2007 are far worse than any of us at RFMJ imagined. We’ve had to imagine, because, even now, the City’s Ethics Code is not available on the city website. We have however obtained a copy and devoted some time collectively in analyzing it.
Background: In the January 2006 special session of the Tennessee state legislature, the state legislators responded to the ethical crisis (See this article on Operation Tennessee Waltz for details) by passing a law that required all cities and counties to adopt an Ethics Code. Cities could either pass a model code developed by MTAS, in which case they only had to notify the newly formed State Ethics Commission that they had done so. If they drafted an Ethics Code of their own, they had to file a copy of their Ethics Code with the State Ethics Commission. The State Ethics Commission does NOT review or approve a municipality’s Ethics Code. But by law, each municipality has to adopt the MTAS model code OR file a copy of the Ethics Code they have adopted with the State Ethics Commission.
Mt. Juliet initially adopted the MTAS model code in August of 2006 and notified the State Ethics Commission that they had done so. But then, in September of 2007 the City Commission repealed the MTAS model code and substituted a new code. And as of February 21st, 2008 they still had not notified the State Ethics Commission or filed a copy with them.
There might be a reason for that. The new local custom Ethics Code adopted by the City of Mt. Juliet is awful.
Here are a few highlights:
- There’s a 30 day statute of limitations. If a complaint is not filed within 30 days of the violation, it’s not valid and will be dismissed.
- A complaint can only be based on “personal knowledge.” So if 12 city employees told you they saw the Mayor take an envelope full of cash from a developer, you can’t file a complaint and ask for an investigation. Basically, unless you already have proof, your complaint will be dismissed as not valid.
- Under the MTAS model code, the City Attorney had an obligation to investigate any credible complaint against an employee or elected official. Under the new Mt. Juliet No-Ethics Code, the words “elected official” have disappeared. The City Attorney is only obligated to investigate credible complaints against employees.
- There’s a special sentence added under outside employment that specifically allows an elected official to take ANY outside job, so long as they have the option to refrain from voting on issues involving their employer. Just in case the Mayor wants to work for a Mt. Juliet developer again, we guess.
- A citizen’s complaint of un-ethical conduct no longer goes to the City Commission to determine whether it has merit or not. Now it must first go to an Ethics Commission, consisting of five citizens picked by the five Commissioners, who can vote to dismiss a complaint on their own. The Ethics Commission can only refer a Complaint to the City Commission for action if it gets four out of five votes.
- Those filing false complaints are threatened with prosecution for perjury.
- An elected official or employee who falsely accuses another official or employee can be charged with a violation of the Ethics Code.
It is truly awful.
But don’t take our word for it. Here is the text of the 2006 model City Ethics Code as adopted by the Mt. Juliet City Commission in August of 2006. Here’s the text of the September 2007 Ordinance that repealed the model Ethics Code and substituted a new one – a MUCH different one. We’ve annotated the new one to show and comment on the differences.