CHARLES TOWN – A Jefferson County Commissioner’s proposal requiring residents who serve on the county’s boards and commissions to sign and adhere to an ethical code of conduct is moving forward.
After some minor changes, Commissioner Lyn Widmyer’s board col¬leagues agreed at their May 15 meeting to take a formal vote on her proposal when they meet next May 29.
“I do continue to propose that applicants sign a statement expressing their understanding of what we expect is ethical behavior,” Widmyer said.
She introduced her code of ethics at the commissioners’ May 1 meeting. It requires appointees to disclose any personal interests related to an issue under deliberation by the board or commission members. They must also abstain completely from taking part in decisions in which they have a personal interest.
Other commissioners unanimously agreed to have the county’s legal department look over the code.
The legal staff determined that appointees should be informed that failure to follow the ethics rules could result in removal from a board or commission, or even in fines and jail time.
Staff members also suggested that appointees be made aware that they must also adhere to a state code of ethics.
“I am very pleased to see these el¬ements are required,” Widmyer said. “What my agreement is, is a summary of the state code, except that it is making it clear that this county commission ex¬pects applicants to realize the rules and laws regarding conflicts of interest.” The proposed ethics code stipulates that a board or commission member must also refuse gifts or favors from people involved in a issue or matter under consideration; must exercise fair, honest and independent judgment; cannot use confidential information acquired in the course of their duties to further personal interest; and cannot discriminate against or harass others based on characteristics which are protected under the civil rights laws and regulations.
Widmyer said her proposed conduct guide is based on a similar code of ethics adopted by the American Planning Association, a nonprofit organization representing city and regional planners from throughout the United States.
Widmyer’s proposal received mixed support from her colleagues when it was first introduced, but at the May 15 meeting only Commission President Walt Pellish voiced strong opposition to the idea.
“Let me add some more mud to the water on this thing,” Pellish said. “Come on folks, let’s get real about this thing. Either you have ethics and you operate by principle or you don’t. Signing a piece of paper that says ‘I’m going to be ethical’ doesn’t mean a damn thing.”
Pellish said he would not object to signing a piece of paper outlining conflict of interest stipulations.
“But when you talk about getting somebody to sign this politically correct nonsense that says ‘I’m going to be ethical,’ it’s meaningless,” he said. “…Folks, I believe in the dignity and goodness of man, and the volunteers that serve on these commissions, I don’t believe they have error in mind. This thing smacks of guilty until proven innocent. It’s unnecessary and it’s unneeded.”
Commissioner Dale Manuel disagreed, saying the proposal makes a lot of sense. “It’s an idea whose time has come,” he said.
The board also discussed the idea of providing training to appointees, and possibly requiring that they take a class on ethical conduct.
“A lot of people who apply for boards don’t know what the ethics requirements really are, and they honestly participate in discussions that they are really banned from under the ethics thing,” Widmyer said. “So [ethics code] protects them so they can read this and they know what is expected…. This is important and we want to make sure the taxpayers of Jefferson County are there for the public interest not private gain.”