Most Glenwood Springs City Council members say they see no compelling reason to amend the city’s conflict-of-interest code, short of some evidence that the policies are actually turning people away from participating in city government.
That was the concern when some council members, during a retreat last fall, suggested that relaxing the conflict rules for elected and appointed officials might be a way to encourage more people to run for council in the future, or to volunteer for a city board or commission.
“I can see how certain professionals in our community would choose not to get involved because they might have a conflict [related to their business],” Councilman Todd Leahy said during a discussion at the Thursday night council meeting.
Personally, he said it’s a concern for him being in the real estate business and potentially coming before the city with a land development project in the future.
“It is possible that I could recuse myself up here, step down and be in front of you on that end,” Leahy said, motioning to the podium where presenters stand before council on a given topic.
“I do consider the rules very strongly before I get involved in something that could be contentious, as things can tend to be in this town,” he said.
Whether Leahy or any other council member could in fact appear before their fellow council members as a proponent of something that the council must decide on is a matter of case-by-case interpretation, City Attorney Jan Shute said.
“It is more complicated for council members,” she said, as compared to an appointed advisory board member. “It’s not a black or white question.”
Many home rule city and county governments in Colorado have their own conflict-of-interest rules, but state law is the default.
The state’s “code of ethics” for local government officials holds that elected or appointed board members, or even hired staff, who have a direct financial interest in a matter that’s being considered must disclose the conflict and recuse themselves from discussing, voting or advising on the matter.
The state’s rules go on to say that anyone who has a conflict “must not attempt to influence” the decision, Shute said.
Glenwood’s conflict-of-interest ordinance, adopted in 1987, attempts to address that particular concern by prohibiting council members or any other official who has a conflict from appearing before council on such matters.
Although not written in the code, council’s standing policy is to ask members who recuse themselves on a given topic to leave the room during the discussion and not return until the vote is taken.
“I don’t think relaxing our conflict-of-interest code is in our best interests,” Mayor Leo McKinney said of the notion.
McKinney said it comes down to maintaining the public trust.
“If we don’t have the integrity to step away from an issue where we have an interest, then the public is not going to have trust in us,” he said. “When we sacrifice integrity, we lose a lot.”
Councilman Mike Gamba was the one to propose a review and possible amendments to the city’s conflict code. He said it wouldn’t be a compromise to relax the city’s rules to mirror state law.
“It’s not fair to say we’re sacrificing our integrity to revise this,” said Gamba, who as an engineering consultant also has the potential to run into conflict issues.
“It used to be that a majority of this council was made up of business owners,” Gamba said of his recollection of the city councils while he was growing up in Glenwood Springs in the 1980s before the conflict code was written.
“I think the code unfairly penalizes business owners who both want to be in business and make a living, and serve on council or on a board or commission,” Gamba said.
Councilman Matt Steckler countered that to remove the conflict protections contained in the city code could be viewed negatively by the general public.
“I need to hear some demonstrable evidence that watering down these rules will have some effect in increasing participation” in city government, Steckler said, suggesting that any proposed revisions should probably be decided by voters.
Other members of the council also said they’re not inclined to look at amending the conflict code at this time.
Councilman Stephen Bershenyi offered that one impediment to serving on city council that might be worth reviewing is the amount of pay for elected officials.
“We might want to take a long-range look at increasing the compensation, which might make it easier for young people to be actively engaged in their community,” Bershenyi said.
Council members are currently paid $500 a month for their service, while the mayor receives $700 a month.