CHARLES TOWN — A Jefferson County commissioner wants full disclosure from the residents who volunteer on the county’s boards and commissions by having them sign and adhere to an ethical code of conduct at the time they are appointed.
Commissioner Lyn Widmyer has introduced a code of ethics that requires appointees to publicly disclose any personal interests related to an issue under deliberation by county board or commission members. They must also abstain completely from participating in any issue in which they have a personal interest.
“I am concerned that applicants really are not aware of how important it is to divulge or make public any personal interests they have in the activities and actions on the boards or commissions they are going to be appointed to,” Widmyer said at the May 1 County Commission meeting. “This code talks about exercising fair, honest and independent judgment.”
Widmyer said she is not asking applicants to submit financial statements.
“This is merely a statement about disclosure of a particular item on a particular agenda, that there might be a personal interest in some fashion … So it’s basically trying to clarify for the record what type of personal interests an applicant might have that relates to the position we’re appointing them to.”
In a phone interview after the meeting, Widmyer said there are some current board and commission members that have not been forthcoming regarding potential conflicts of interest, though she declined to name a particular person.
“I think we don’t always vet [applicants] like we should,” she said. “The fact is people are conveying those concerns to me.”
Widmyer’s proposal received mixed support from her board colleagues, though they unanimously agreed to have the county’s legal department look over the document she submitted.
“The road to hell was paved with good intentions, but I place this in the category of you are guilty until proven innocent,” Commissioners’ President Walt Pellish said. “Maybe we ought to require blood tests, Wasserman tests, whether or not they are members of the Elks or the Moose, because that could impact their thinking and what they might be doing financially … This, to me, is just a needless exercise.”
Commissioner Patsy Noland said she thought the rules outlined in the ethics code were too restrictive.
“I think it’s going farther than it should, and I agree we should have legal counsel take a look at it,” Noland said. “I don’t want to discourage people from applying. We have to remember that all of these people are volunteers that are appointed to these boards. They don’t get a dime, unless it is a reimbursement for travel.”
Noland said she does understand Widmyer’s intentions.
“Under this document none of us could vote on anything with planning, because we all own property that could be potentially influenced by any planning decision,” she said. “Plus, I think it would be very hard to enforce.”
The proposed ethics code stipulates that a board or commission member must also refuse gifts or favors from people involved in an issue or matter under consideration; must exercise fair, honest and independent judgment; is prohibited from using 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 throughout the United States.
Commissioner Jane Tabb said the idea of a code of ethics for Jefferson County is not necessary.
“But if this is the will of the group, then let’s send it to legal,” she said.
Commissioner Dale Manuel said he supports the idea of a code of ethics, but is concerned applicants will refuse to sign it.
“I agree we need to send it to legal counsel for them to do some work on it, and come back with a different document,” he said. “… What if someone is reluctant to sign a document like this? It frightens the dickens out of me … Because I looked it over and I have questions myself. But I’m solidly for a code of ethics for all individuals that serve on our commissions and boards.”