Dean to appoint ethics panel

Law School Dean Alex Johnson Jr. is one of three legal experts who will assemble the board.

Drew Geraets

The University’s Law School Dean Alex Johnson Jr. will help appoint members to the new Ethical Practices Board, designed to keep an eye on Minneapolis officials.

Johnson will work with the University of St. Thomas School of Law dean and the Hennepin County District Court’s chief judge to appoint three members to the board.

“It is hoped that the Ethical Practices Board will foster a healthy ethical culture throughout Minneapolis city government and promote high ethical standards and conduct,” Johnson wrote in an e-mail. “The Board will be charged with investigating allegations of unethical conduct by city officials.”

Corruption allegations have blemished the reputation of the Minneapolis City Council in recent years.

Brian Herron resigned from the council in 2001 after a jury convicted him of extorting several thousand dollars from a local businessman. He spent one year in federal prison.

Several months later, Council member Joe Biernat left following allegations that he received free plumbing at a property he owned. A jury convicted him of mail fraud, aiding theft from a local plumbers union and lying to an FBI agent, resulting in a 21-month prison term.

“We’ve had some significant ethical problems in the past,” said City Council member Paul Zerby, 2nd Ward, who represents areas surrounding the Minneapolis campus. “I think initially at least, it’s saying we take that seriously and we’re going to try to approach it in a way to prevent that from happening again.”

Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak gathered city staff and outside sources to look at other cities and determine how Minneapolis could improve accountability, said Carol Lansing, Minneapolis’ ethics officer and assistant city attorney.

“The city has had an ethics code for a number of years, but when Mayor Rybak came into office one of his first initiatives was to appoint an ethics task force,” she said.

The task force developed recommendations in 2002 to revise the code and created an ethical practices board, she said. The council adopted the changes in March 2003.

Minneapolis is not the only city that has faced ethical questions. St. Paul Mayor Randy Kelly drew criticism last year for accepting free airline and game tickets for a Minnesota Wild game in Denver.

David Schultz, a Hamline University public administration professor, spoke out against the gifts and said cities such as St. Paul are not equipped to handle ethical issues associated with locally elected officials.

St. Paul once had an ethical practices board but Schultz said it fell out of use after former mayor Sen. Norm Coleman, R-Minn., did not appoint new members.

“There’s a lot of issues that arise at the local level, and there’s no place to bring those complaints,” Schultz said.

It is difficult to bring complaints before the city attorney because that person is often appointed by the mayor, causing a conflict of interest, he said. The county attorney usually doesn’t deal with small issues, Schultz said.

Minneapolis officials decided to form an independent appointing committee to eliminate conflicts of interest.

City employees and local officials cannot serve on the board, which should help create more accountability for elected officials, Lansing said.

“If a person’s an employee, their discipline goes through their supervisor,” she said. “But for elected officials, who’s their boss?”

Schultz said the committee removes politics from the appointing process and ensures that a city council or mayor cannot remove members of the ethical practices board.

“One of the hallmarks of American law is that no one can be a judge in their own case,” he said. “That’s what St. Paul has done consistently wrong.”