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City OKs ethics code amid rancor

• Some council members ask if city really needs one

Posted: May 15, 2008 1:58 a.m.
Updated: July 15, 2008 5:03 a.m.
 

The Santa Clarita City Council adopted a code of ethics this week, but not without a nearly two-hour debate with members of the public about what a code of ethics is and whether the city really needs one.

The code the council adopted at Tuesday's City Council meeting lists principles drawn from the city's existing set of philosophies, such as fairness, respect and integrity. Also included are highlights of regulations from the personnel guidelines as well as the major state and federal laws pertaining to city officials.

Members of the public who have pushed for the development of a code of ethics questioned the ethical standards of the city's top officials Tuesday night. But council members, in turn, questioned the motives of the speakers.

"Much of what we're hearing from the speakers tonight is because you disagree with someone here at the city. Rather than accepting that people have different opinions, (they say) ‘no, it's ethics, it's collusion," said Mayor Bob Kellar. "We could write policies until the cows come home and keep writing policies and keep writing policies and there will still be those of you who say we've got a problem."

Councilman Frank Ferry agreed. "I could see it in some ways being used as a weapon," he said.

Last August, members of the public as well as then-Councilman TimBen Boydston asked the city to develop a code of ethics for city staff and City Council members to adhere to. A handful of speakers Tuesday said they expected a code of ethics that consisted of new ethical regulations.

"A unilateral decision by the city manager to create a meaningless code of ethics sends a clear message to the people of Santa Clarita that you have no interest in improving the ethics in Santa Clarita," said Bruce McFarland, a founder of the Santa Clarita Valley Ethics Alliance.

Alan Ferdman, who is also a founder of the ethics alliance, said the general code of ethics that draws on existing policies isn't good enough.

"It is important not only to those entrusted with performing city business, but also to the city residents that we all understand what behaviors should be expected," he said. "Without a process for training, reporting, investigating and taking action, the code simply becomes shelf ware and confidence in the city government is impaired."

Diane Trautman, who serves on the city's Planning Commission, said that although a guiding philosophy is important, it is no substitute for a specific set of guidelines that define acceptable and unacceptable behaviors and actions.

"It is easier to follow the rules if you know the rules and everyone should know the rules," she said.

Council members, however, said it is better to keep the code of ethics broad.

"The broader we keep this, the more it could include, not less," said Councilwoman Laurie Ender.

Members of the public also asked that an independent commission be set up to review allegations made against city officials.

City Attorney Carl Newton said, however, that because Santa Clarita is a general law city, state law prevents the city from creating a commission that has authority over the City Council.

Ender said Santa Clarita already has a system of checks and balances and that the City Council is the independent body responsible for watching over city staff.

Michael Murphy, intergovernmental relations officer for the city, said if allegations are made against a council member, the complaint could be filed with state's Fair Political Practices Commission or District Attorney's office. He added that within City Hall, complaints against city staff can be made to the city's human resources department or to the city manager.

Kellar asked members of the public to trust their city officials. "If we have criminal conduct, we will deal with it," Kellar said. "If we have a pattern of conduct that is absolutely unacceptable in administrative rules, policies, we will deal with it."

He pointed to City Manager Ken Pulskamp and said, "That's why we pay that man a lot of money. I ask the city and the members of this community to have some appreciation for what you've got. Be proud of your people. They're working hard for you. Their hearts are in the right place."

Council members unanimously approved the code of ethics that city staff had proposed, but asked that staff add a list of government agencies the public could go to if they suspect a city official is breaking the law.

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