City task force explores options for employee ethics training

by Tom Ford

After the recent indictment of one Minneapolis City Council member and the imprisonment of another, the city has narrowed its focus on its employees’ ethics.

During the past few months, a task force of city and community leaders has studied other cities’ policies with the goal of strengthening Minneapolis ethics codes and training.

Members of the task force – formed by Mayor R.T. Rybak as part of a campaign pledge to “open the doors of City Hall” – said some city policies are vague and need clarification.

But some city officials said they doubted whether these efforts are necessary or will be effective.

“Codes and rules do not make an honest person,” said City Council member Barbara Johnson. “If people are going to break the rules, they are going to do it whether the rule book is specific or not.”

Although the task force began meeting before April 18, the indictment that day of 3rd Ward City Council member Joe Biernat intensified concern about city employees’ ethics.

The indictment alleges Biernat appointed a former union leader to a city plumbing licensing board in exchange for work done on his home. He pleaded innocent to the charges.

Two months earlier, former 8th Ward City Council member Brian Herron pleaded guilty to extortion charges after taking money from a local businessman in return for regulatory leniency.

In response to the Herron case, the city hired Chicago attorney Joe Duffy to conduct an investigation of Minneapolis regulatory and inspection services.

Duffy’s report concluded there was no systemic corruption in the city’s regulatory system. But among several recommendations, Duffy advised the city to provide formal ethics training for its employees and officials.

Cam Gordon, a task force member, said the current Minneapolis ethics code is unclear and has “some gaps.” For example, Gordon said, the Minneapolis code doesn’t require disclosure of some gifts or loans received by city officials.

“What we’re after is a real clarity in the code so people can understand what the expectations are,” he said.

One of the cities the task force is studying is Chicago, which has a more extensive ethics code than Minneapolis. The code prescribes a more specific set of sanctions for violations – including job dismissal – in its ordinances.

The city authorizes its Board of Ethics, which operates independently of the council, to oversee the ethics code and investigate municipal employees suspected of violations. Minneapolis has no such body.

The board conducts ethics training sessions that are available to all city employees. High-level officials, such as department heads, are required to attend these sessions every four years. The board fines officials $500 if they fail to receive the training.

Dorothy Eng, the board’s executive director, said the agency spends most of its time educating employees and answering questions.

Eng said most people who violate the ethics code don’t do so willfully. Instead, Eng said, they often don’t fully understand the city ordinances.

“Folks who mean well and are conscientious will act accordingly when there are agencies in place to assist them through and understand the ethics rules,” she said.

Minneapolis City Council task force member Scott Benson said the city could benefit from a board similar to Chicago’s, which employees could turn to when they have questions or confusion over the ethics code.

“That would be a huge leap forward for us,” Benson said.

But current city budget constraints would likely limit the size and role of a Minneapolis board, he said. The Chicago board’s budget is more than $600,000.

City Council member Robert Lilligren said he is concerned the reform could be a form of “moral policing.” He said the task force will not necessarily make a huge impact, as ethics are ingrained early in life.

“Training someone in ethics, I’m not sure that’s even possible or a really constructive use of time,” Lilligren said.

He warned against harboring high expectations for the task force.

“It would be ambitious to think that whatever work this group did would prevent, say, a Herron incident,” he said.

The task force is expected to reveal its recommendations in July.

Tom Ford covers City Hall and welcomes comments at [email protected]