At the beginning of Boulder City Council’s Oct. 23 study session on ethics and financial reporting, council member Tim Plass asked the most valuable question of the night.
It was this: When the council amends its policies to address the ethical issues that have made headlines this year — like council members not being completely forthcoming on their financial disclosure forms — will the public perception be that the policies are being weakened?
Council member Suzy Ageton echoed that concern later in the meeting.
“If we look like we are softening this, the community may think we’re trying to make it easier on ourselves,” she said. “How is this going to play? Will it let people hold us more accountable?” In case you missed BW’s reporting on this issue in recent months, we uncovered an array of incorrect or omitted information on the financial disclosure forms that council members are required to fill out annually. City Attorney Tom Carr, who is not just hired by the city council, but serves as both advisor and prosecutor when it comes to enforcing ethical breaches among its members, dismissed the apparent violations, chalking it up to unclear language on the forms.
Hence, the current effort to “clean up” that language and amend the city’s code of conduct to address sticky issues like appearances of impropriety (or how to keep city council members from abusing their power for their own gain).
The issue of public perception raised at the Oct. 23 meeting is key. After all, these are our representatives — we elect them, and sometimes re-elect them. If it looks like they are trying to make it even easier to hide their conflicts of interest, they should get booted out of office in favor of people with more integrity.
The problem is, some city officials still don’t seem to get it.
For his part, Carr suggested that, golly, since all council members live in Boulder, and all of their decisions affect Boulder, “at some metaphysical level, you have an interest in everything that comes before you.”
He also lamented that, darn it, when council members recuse themselves from voting on a downtown project because they own property next door, for instance, you lose their expertise on the subject.
“There is a huge gray area,” council member KC Becker said. “We don’t know what the public perception is. The papers might write stories about it, but we don’t know what the public perception is. … We shouldn’t base this on public perception, because you never know.”
OK, so here’s a good test, KC. Next time you are conflicted about whether to publicly reveal a possible conflict, ask yourself whether you would you feel OK reading about it in the newspaper. If you didn’t disclose something and you feel fine about it, then there should be no problem if it were to get out, right?
But anointed council apologist Carr still wants to protect the council members’ prerogative to come to him privately to air out their dirty laundry, to get advice on whether they should recuse themselves from voting on projects that would benefit them financially, for instance. His example of why such confidentiality should continue was, well, off the wall.
“You could have dated the applicant in college, and you don’t want to reveal that at this point in time,” Carr said.
Similarly, council member George Karakehian continues to show that he would rather err on the side of secrecy. While he recused himself from a recent vote on the redevelopment of the former Daily Camera building downtown, he didn’t say why he was recusing himself. Presumably it was because of all those properties he co-owns downtown that he didn’t disclose on his forms, but he wouldn’t reveal that, even when asked by his fellow council members. Suzanne Jones questioned Karakehian about why he didn’t want to give the reason for his recusal.
He replied that he didn’t want to add more fuel to the fire “and maybe have more articles written about me.”
George, you would have fewer articles written about you if you erred on the side of transparency and openness.
Mayor Matt Appelbaum, to his credit, said it probably would have been better if Karakehian had announced why he was recusing himself. Appelbaum also suggested that council members raise issues openly at council meetings when they have any doubts about whether something is a conflict.
But not surprisingly, when the discussion turned to whether council members should accept free club-level tickets to CU football games, Karakehian and Becker defended the practice, saying it was an opportunity to interact with the regents and other CU officials. Also not surprisingly, perennial voice of reason Lisa Morzel suggested that the city pay for the tickets instead.
Here’s the bottom line. There are five members of Boulder City Council whose terms expire next fall. Whether they are re-elected or replaced — and who they are replaced with — should depend largely on how these public servants “fix” their own ethics rules in the coming months.
Keep a close eye on how strongly they decide to police themselves.
And vote accordingly.