Valid ethics complaints need to be heard in public
No one is perfect. The devil is in the details. No good deed goes unpunished… Every saying a cliché and every saying accurately describes Bernalillo County’s ethics ordinance. The ordinance was, I believe, an honest attempt to protect the public from both the perception and reality of misbehavior by county employees and elected officials. It created a set of standards and a process for enforcing those standards.
Allegations against any county employee or elected official can be made through a sworn complaint or anonymously. A web portal was set up to collect anonymous complaints and, not surprisingly, the county’s web portal quickly became the favorite way to file a complaint.
No one is perfect
In order to protect employees and officials from frivolous complaints, anonymous complaints are reviewed by an independent investigator to determine the validity of the allegation and the applicability of the ordinance. Should facts supporting a violation be found, the ordinance requires that the internal audit contractor “prepare the sworn complaint and present its investigation to the Ethics Board.”
The ordinance clearly intends that a full board of five members be present to hear complaints – even providing for a replacement appointee where a member has a conflict of interest.
To date, there have been three cases where the internal audit contractor found facts that support a violation of the county’s ethics ordinance. Would it surprise you that one of the complaints has been dismissed despite the fact that the full ethics board hasn’t heard a case in well over a decade? It certainly surprised me. In fact, I was shocked!
The devil is in the details
A constituent of mine recently quipped, “Is it any surprise that they found a way around the ordinance when the ordinance itself was taken from Cook County Illinois?” In point of fact, the shortcut to dismissal wasn’t found in Chicago, but right here in the City of Albuquerque.
At the last full meeting of the ethics board in October of 2010, the county attorney presented the board with a set of rules and regulations that included language from the City of Albuquerque Ethics Board creating a “review committee” of three members. The “review committee” – made up of ethics board members appointed by the ethics board chair – has the authority to summarily dismiss complaints in secret prior to a public hearing. That’s how a case that was never heard by the ethics board and never heard by the public was dismissed.
At the time the dismissed case was “reviewed” by the “review committee,” there were two members of the ethics board still waiting to be confirmed and one of the three “review committee” members was an appointee of the accused. County Attorney Jeff Landers, in a memo dated Jan. 18, encouraged the three remaining members to “review” the case in spite of the fact that the board was missing two members. Worse, he seemingly encouraged dismissal, stating “(a)s you are aware, the review committee is able to review the Complaint and determine whether it believes that the matter should be dismissed without hearing.”
How can the public trust a ruling from a committee where one of three members was appointed by the accused, the decision was made in secret, and the county attorney appears to be encouraging dismissal without a public hearing?
The ethics ordinance created a two-step process where an independent investigator reviews a case to determine its merits, then presents the case to the full ethics board. It does not include a “review committee,” and does not permit hearings by less than the full board. The “review committee” process is a disservice to and perhaps even a deception of the public, not to mention the pall it casts over the accused who is denied the opportunity of a public exoneration.
No good deed goes unpunished
The three complaints found to have merit, including the “dismissed” complaint, have all been against Commission Chair and Ethics Ordinance champion Maggie Hart Stebbins. It’s the irony of ethics ordinances that they can be used unethically and perhaps that is the case here. However, we will never know for sure in at least one case because that case has been dismissed in secret by a “review committee.”
The people of Bernalillo County deserve open, transparent and ethical government. There can be no shortcuts to dismissal and no short-circuiting of the original process created by the commission. Valid complaints need to be heard in public, not dismissed behind closed doors.
It’s our responsibility as elected officials to restore and maintain the trust in county government. Obviously, we still have a long way to go.
Johnson is the Bernalillo County commissioner representing District 5.
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