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Honest politicians have nothing to fear

Alison Miller
Vail, CO Colorado

EAGLE COUNTY ” One way or another, Eagle County will have a code of ethics for its county commissioners.

The only question is will county voters approve it as part of the revived home rule initiative or will the Board of County Commissioners draft one on their own?

When voters were asked to approve going to home rule in November, a code of ethics was included in the measure. When voters turned down the proposal, the code of ethics died with it.

The Home Rule Charter Commission has rewritten their proposal, and will re-introduce it through a mail-in ballot in April. If voters approve it, Article 10 of the charter, the code of ethics (see sidebar), will also be put into place.

“When we drafted the charter for home rule, there was a code of ethical standards we created as part of that,” said Don Cohen, chairman of the Home Rule Charter Commission. “We have revised some parts of the home-rule question, but the code of ethics remains the same and is still included in the measure.”

The proposal is a scaled-down version of the Calistoga, Calif., ethic code and addresses conflict of interest, financial gain and not interfering with the administration of the county, Cohen said. There are no set punishments for breaking the code, but Cohen said the citizens always have the right to ask for a recall of an elected official.

“Their code, and others in Pitkin County and Denver, are much more broad and don’t accomplish what we envision ours to look like,” Cohen said. “We really cut out the ambiguity and made a much more specific code. It’s hard to censure someone for unethical behavior when the definition of it is so broad and non-specific.”

The commission worked off the idea that a code of ethics “covers the gray area of conduct before you get into criminal conduct”, and didn’t want to get into too much detail “that would require a person to go to law school to understand,” Cohen said.

A recent survey that prompted the commission’s decision to hold a second vote on home rule showed that 86 percent of residents who participated in the survey were in favor of having a code of ethics.

“I’m for it because I think we need to keep our commissioners honest, and I think in the long-run the benefits will far outweigh the work that goes into creating a code,” Avon resident Danial Acheson said. “We need to make sure our representatives don’t benefit too much by serving us.”

The commissioners said they were interested in creating a clearly defined code, but questions arose as to whether there are already ethical standards in place.

“I don’t know why we always wrestle over creating a code of ethics statute,” Commissioner Arn Menconi said. “Don’t we already have ethical standards in our statutes? This would really just bring it all together to make the citizens more comfortable.”

Uncertainty over how the survey’s code of ethics question was asked also made the commissioners curious what the citizens are really looking for.

“I wonder if they asked if there should be a code of ethics for politicians, to which, I bet many thought there is already one and of course politicians should act ethically,” Commissioner Sara Fisher said. “I would be curious to know if it was clear they were being asked if they wanted a code created.”

In the end, the commissioners decided it would be in the public’s interest to create a code of ethics that would be available for the public to review. Any code the commissioners create will be mandated for all county employees, and not just elected officials.

“I just hope the commissioners don’t try to reinvent the wheel, so to speak, if it comes to drafting their own code of ethics,” Cohen said. “I don’t think anyone wants to see too many tax dollars going into panels and research when so many people have been down this road before.”

County Attorney Brian Treu advised the commissioners to hold-off on drafting a code until the Colorado State Supreme Court makes a final decision regarding the state-wide code of ethics for elected officials, Amendment 41.

Amendment 41 was adopted by 62.6 percent of Colorado voters in November, and was intended to “raise the ethical bar” by prohibiting government employees, elected politicians, other officials and their families from accepting gifts or money.

The opponents challenging the amendment in court say the effects of the measure, whether intended or not, are so broad that it would be virtually impossible to follow or punish officials for violations.

Should home rule be approved by Eagle County voters, the county could opt-out of Amendment 41 and the code of ethics the commission created will be law instead. If home rule does not pass, any code of ethics the commissioners adopt will be in addition to what is already the law under Amendment 41.

“It’s very confusing, but I think the people know what they want and what the people want is important,” Home Rule Charter Commission member Tom Edwards said. “Just look at 41, it went too far and was onerous, but people voted because they want to hold public officials responsible. They want something to hang their hat on that is clear in saying ‘you are responsible for your behavior’.”

Staff writer Alison Miller can be reached at 748-2928 or armiller@vaildaily.com.


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