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HomeNewsClarksville City Council Session Recap of March 7th, 2012 - Part II

Clarksville City Council Session Recap of March 7th, 2012 – Part II

Clarksville City Council - Ward 10Clarksville, TN – The Clarksville City Council met in its usual first Thursday of the month session on March 7th. It was a long meeting lasting until 11:00pm. Here is Part II on the results of some important decisions.

Ordinance 67 (Ethics): You know the history, the delays and now the moment of truth. This ordinance would create an Ethics Commission that would review ethics complaints. Basically Mayor Kim McMillan wants a 5-member commission she would appoint with council approval.

Any complaint would have to be filed with name and signature sworn to. The commission would review an ethics charge and make a determination that a violation has occurred.

After making that decision, the possible outcomes can range from the commission informing the council a violation took place and that would conclude the commission’s input; inform the council and make a recommendation of remedial action; recommend the violator resign; recommend that violating conduct stop or be prevented from happening again; refer the matter to the City Attorney to recover loss, or request civil action be taken, or disciplinary action.

A number of potential amendments were offered, but were combined or “weeded out” by the City Attorney to three or four major changes. Councilwoman McLaughlin proposed the first amendment. Currently, anonymous ethics complaints are allowed. Mayor McMillan’s version would not allow them.

McLaughlin requested it be reinstated. However, for an anonymous complaint to be made/accepted, the same very specific information, as if a sworn compliant was made, would be required. Detailed information is not required in the current process.

There are pros and cons to allowing an anonymous ethics complaint. People do fear losing their city job if they make a complaint against an elected representative or that other less obvious reprisals would take place over time. Some council members discarded this concern as being invalid.

I know I have ward residents that fear reprisals from neighbors on codes complaints and will contact me to place the complaint and ask that their name not be mentioned at all. If people are that concerned over reporting a code violation, then it is reasonable that if your job is on the line you may chose to keep you mouth shut rather than take heat for trying to expose a real ethics issue.

One of the most famous cases in American History concerning ethics and criminal related activity was an anonymous informant known as “Deep Throat” in the Watergate scandal, which forced the resignation of President Nixon. While a “Clarksgate” scandal is not likely, there have been plenty of local and state elected officials, to include a Tennessee governor, that violated ethics and laws and went to prison.  Many of those started when someone quietly dropped a “heads-up” to a person or agency that could do something about it.

On the other hand, elected officials seem to fear that such anonymous complaints can be used as a weapon to affect elections or damage a reputation. To a degree, being an elected official always carries the possibility that someone will raise an ethics issue.

However, you don’t have to file an ethics complaint with the city just to attack another official on ethics. That was in evidence when a current sitting ward council member made ethics related comments in the media that were directed to another (now former) ward council member’s actions and profession concerning redevelopment in Clarksville. The ethics violations or inference of violations were false.

In the end, the amendment to allow anonymous complaints failed in a 5-yes & 7-no vote.  I voted yes based on the amount of required information needed to justify analysis of such a compliant.  History has shown that many problems have been exposed by someone quietly and anonymously bringing the issue to light.

The next amendment was changing how the commission members would be chosen. I proposed that each council member, including the mayor, would select a citizen from his or her ward (the mayor could pick from the whole city). That citizen would have to answer a questionnaire that reflected membership requirements that would have to be met in order to sit on the commission.

The criteria included that citizen, and anyone living within that citizen’s household, could not have participated or financially donated to a campaign for or against any sitting member on the council. This would include any Political Action Committee, such as was evidenced in the last election and tied to supporters of the mayor, against a sitting council member and another citizen running for council.

Another criterion was a citizen (and those within the citizen’s household) could not be doing business with the city through a professional contract or accept a professional contract while on the commission.  Professional contracts are not competitively bid.

I am not stating that anything illegal has taken place, but documented election records show that some campaign contributions given, professional contracts awarded, and mayoral (and many council approved) city committee appointments made have the same citizen’s name or business listed.  At issue here the council never has the information provided during these votes for approval.

Also listed as a criterion is a citizen could not be listed as a member of a political party holding an appointed or elected position of responsibility within that party.  The mayor commented that the council election/makeup is not party affiliated.  True, but study of campaign donations to some members on the council, from the political parties and individuals holding positions of influence and responsibility associated with those parties, show linkage whether the council is officially party neutral or not.

Mayor McMillan took challenge with much of my amendment stating she had reviewed/studied it. One issue was changing the method that is normally used in selecting members to committees, commissions, and other groupings. The charter/code normally allows the mayor to select and the council to approve such members.

The mayor appears to feel that my proposal negates her authority to select individuals. In essence, she is correct with this particular issue. Citizens and council members vividly remember from the recent election the attack PAC that had members that the mayor selected for city committees and the council had approved. That PAC publicly went after a sitting council member and other council candidates to defeat them and also provided support to others on behalf of the mayor and her agenda.

The mayor has also commented that she has studied and used Nashville’s Ethics Commission setup as a guide.  I too looked at Nashville’s commission setup.  The interesting point with Nashville (and some other cities I looked at) is the mayor does not choose the Ethics Commission members.  With my proposal the mayor would still provide an input, just not all of them. I guess the mayor did not like Nashville’s approach to selecting commission members.

The mayor then stated she believed there were “serious” constitutional questions involved. These ranged from not allowing citizens that might be selected for the commission to provide campaign donations to council members or hold political party positions; compete or hold professional contracts with the city; or that family members living within the selected citizen’s home have to meet those same requirements.

The mayor stated that individuals have the right to perform these actions and we cannot interfere or stop them. The mayor is correct. Citizens have the right to carry out these actions. However, if we stipulate that these actions do not fit the impartial criteria requirements for our ethics commission, the city has the right to exclude them from council consideration.

I had already discussed the issues of these criteria with the city attorney’s office.  There are NO constitutional issues involved.  No citizen that participates in the issues listed is stopped from doing so.  Selection to the Ethics Commission is strictly voluntary so there is nothing to force a citizen to serve and give up those political or business activities they may already be involved with or wish to participate in the future.

The mayor had issue with the inclusion of family members being included within the criteria.   The city’s current regulations on ethical conduct include the terms of “immediate family member” or “any member of the employee’s household” (employee is defines as an elected official, paid city employee and citizens appointed to board committees, commissions, etc.) and that the members cannot participate in in certain activities due to ethical concerns.  So this was another point without merit since the city already includes “family members” as criteria.

The mayor was also against my amendment because she did not believe we could find 13 people that could meet the ethics criteria I had proposed. That was a rather shocking statement, although the mayor has said something similar before (During the selection of the CDE Board I pushed that one board member should be an engineer with a background in electrical, computers or some other technical background.

She stated she would not know where to find such a person.) I commented that out of 134,000 citizens in Clarksville I just can not believe we could not find 13 individuals that meet the requirements. It further concerns me that the mayor has not proposed criteria on her own that potential commission candidates should have to meet. By what the mayor has stated, she wants to select five citizens and we approve or disapprove them.

What I believe is hard to do is select someone to sit in an ethics review of a council member, committee member or department head that we do not know or have vital information on. By the mayor’s reasoning, if one of her commission selections is a donator to her campaigns, has obtained a professional services contract with the city, been an active member in her campaigns or advisor of Democratic Party issues and has a spouse involved in the same concerns, then she can still nominate them.

There are many fine citizens that are involved in every criterion suggested. That does not make them evil or unable to fairly judge right from wrong. However, most people would rather be judged by those who have as few connections, in any form, to the operations of the entity or body they sit in judgment of.

This opened a heated and major discussion between Councilman Allen and the mayor. Council Allen stated he would not feel comfortable with a commission selected by the mayor, even if approved by the council.  Too many votes have been approved only by the mayor’s vote providing the winning margin.

Councilman Allen had the floor and was making a point of supporting my amendment using a comparison of a past committee selection the mayor had made that had multiple family connections, mayoral family work ties and donor ties. Councilman Allen believed that if council members provided the membership of the ethics commission we could not see a repeat of that previous mayoral committee makeup.

The mayor did not want to hear this and jumped in to kill the discussion stating it was not related to the ordinance at hand. The mayor then stated that she knew Allen did not like her and he should vote against the ordinance and be done with it. Councilman Allen said his issues and concerns were directed to the processes and how they had been used. It got frisky as a couple of other council members jumped in out of turn.

After the smoke cleared, my amendment garnered a 6-yes & 6-no vote and then the mayor voted no. So it was defeated.

Another amendment I proposed would REQUIRE the commission to provide a course of action to fix any finding of an ethics violation. In turn, the council would carry out that action per their direction and in accordance with charter authority. That is not a requirement in the Mayor’s version.

In national reviews of ethics commissions, the flaw in the process has been that commissions may provide a punishment, but the administration or approval of the punishment would fall back to the elected body. This report stated if the elected body could not willingly engage in citing ethics charges (which some of our council members have stated) then how could they engage in selection of a just punishment.

This did not pass either with a 5-yes & 7-no vote.

With all amendments presented, the final vote on the Mayor’s ethics commission passed with a 7-yes & 5-no vote. I voted no.

The proposed Ethics Commission will be made to sound as a great advance in local ethics procedures.  However, it has sections of procedural weakness and still leaves too much operational control within the hands of any Clarksville mayor.  That procedural weakness and operational control can not support a function that is supposed to be operating in the strictest terms of an unbias review and decision making capacity.

Resolution 32 – (Design Guidelines)

You will recall in January, I sponsored this resolution to get some updated design guidelines in issues such as signage, lighting, etc. I know Ward 10 residents have been concerned with managed development along the Hwy76/MKL corridor for years.  Updated guidelines would help with that development.

Other council members and I have tried to do this for four or five years and keep getting stalled or stonewalled. This latest effort was going to request that the Planning Commission take action through my resolution. The mayor jumped in and announced she was going to set up a Task Force to look at the processes involved. These processes were not my goal, but the guidelines themselves.

The average resident could care less as to how a builder/developer goes about getting approval for a 150-foot flag pole to wave monster flags over their house; they want to know why he is allowed to do so at all and why they have to live with it.

The mayor wanted me to withdraw my resolution stating that her task force covered what I wanted, too.  Her written direction on forming the task force did not include design guidelines. I sat in on the first task force meeting and was not assured with what I heard that my (and other council members) goal of new common design guidelines was going to be addressed. My resolution was defeated.

After the vote, I directly asked the mayor (for the record) that since the new common citywide design guidelines are part of her task force’s mission, would they be presented at the conclusion of their effort. She stated she did not know.  She was not in charge of that task force nor could she tell them what they needed to do.

It was amazing the amount of double talk the mayor has presented on this topic alone.  In her January 30th, 2013 news release, the mayor had no problem telling the Task Force its goal would be “to review Clarksville’s design review committee structure and present recommendations to simplify and streamline the design approval process”.

There is NO mention of revised designed guidelines in her Task Force directive and now the doubletalk that my requested action was included, but no assurance we’ll see anything about it. Can you say “stonewalled” again?

Editor’s Note: This article contains the view points of Councilman Bill Summers and may not represent the views of the rest of the City Council, the City of Clarksville or ClarksvilleOnline.

Bill Summers
Bill Summershttp://www.cityofclarksville.com/
Bill Summers is the City Councilman for Ward 10 in Clarksville, TN. Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed by the author are not necessarily those of the City of Clarksville or Clarksville Online.

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