OCEANSIDE — Elected officials in the city must now adhere to a code of ethics and conduct.
City Council unanimously approved the city’s first Code of Ethics and Conduct Policy on Feb. 26, which outlines expectations of behavior from elected officials in the city and in an effort to strengthen public trust and combat corruption. The code applies to the mayor, all council members, the city clerk and treasurer whether elected or appointed, council aides and anyone appointed by the council to city boards, committees and commissions.
The code goes back to a Sept. 18, 2019, council workshop where council directed staff to develop the code’s language before returning to council for approval.
“Staff researched the adopted code of ethics used in other cities and proposed policies consistent with what typical approach is,” said Assistant City Clerk Vaida Pavolas at the Feb. 26 meeting.
The code includes 16 standards of ethics in the code, which target conduct of officials both professionally and personally while in office, complying with “the spirit and the letter” of law and city policy, communication, conflicts of interest and use of public resources.
Specifically, one of the standards states that members cannot take any special advantage of services or opportunities for personal gain. Another standard prevents members from appearing to council or any board, committee or commission on behalf of the private interests of third parties.
Conduct standards listed in the code include practicing civility and decorum in discussions and debate, avoiding personal comments, being welcoming to speakers, being fair and equitable to individual speakers during public hearing times and refraining from using electronic devices during public hearing times.
The conduct code also prohibits members from publically criticizing an individual employee, soliciting political support from staff and from lobbying on behalf of an individual, business or developer to any city board, committee or commission.
Several public speakers at council’s Feb. 26 meeting applauded the council for approving the ethics code.
“Thank you for your positive response to the public’s request for a code of ethics,” said Mary Ellen Reese. “Well done, staff, this was a comprehensive document, you just did a great job.
Still, Reese felt the document could have been more robust.
“Officials will be self-policing with this code,” Ellen said. “The public will be confident of the transparency of our government if officials receiving any kind of donations disclose the fact before discussion of a related agenda item begins.”
According to the code, members are expected to disclose investments, interests in real property, sources of income and gifts. If they have an impermissible conflict of interest regarding a particular decision, they shall recuse themselves from discussion and vote.
Additionally, the code states that officials will “refrain from accepting any gifts, favors or promises of future benefits which might compromise their independence of judgment or action or give the appearance of being compromised.” Officials could be disqualified from participating in government based on the acceptance of a gift if determined in according with legal requirements of the Political Reform Act.
Resident Arleen Hammerschmidt congratulated staff and council on approving the code of ethics and for listening to what the public wanted, but wanted to see more included in the document.
“It needs teeth,” Hammerschmidt said. “It needs consequences.”
Specifically, Hammerschmidt wants to see more included regarding conflicts of interest, such as an amendment prohibiting members from participating in decisions that financially benefit a person or company that has contributed to them or their political campaign.
The adopted code prevents members from “using their official positions to influence government decisions in which they have a material financial interest as set forth in the Political Reform Act and applicable regulations promulgated by the Fair Political Practices Commission, or actual bias that would result in denial of procedural due process.”
The city has made the Code of Ethics and Conduct for Elected and Appointed Officials available under the City Council tab on its website.
Samantha Nelson covers Oceanside, Camp Pendleton and the decommissioning San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station. She earned her journalism degree from the E.W. Scripps School of Journalism at Ohio University, and has previously reported for The Athens Messenger in Athens, Ohio, and USA Today in McLean, Virginia. Follow her on Twitter: @samm1son