City council members receive lessons on conduct, ethics laws

Evanston Municipal Judge Mark Harris reviews the Wyoming Ethics Act with city council members on Tuesday, Feb. 28. (HERALD PHOTO/Kayne Pyatt)

EVANSTON — The work session of the Evanston City Council held on Tuesday, Feb. 28, was a time for education and review of the laws concerning the ethical conduct of elected officials and proposed rules of procedure and order presented by Municipal Judge Mark Harris and City Attorney Amanda Kirby.

Judge Harris addressed the council and the members of the public present and said, “Amanda asked me to come tonight and go over the laws concerning ethics and civility. A lack of civility and abuse of ethics seems to be a problem across the nation. Why is a knowledge of ethics law and civility important? I just read in the Casper Star Tribune that Sen. Anthony Bouchard is being investigated for calling a member of the public ‘a [expletive] idiot.’ That is why it is important that we talk about ethics.”

Normally, a training on ethics law is a four-hour commitment, Harris said, but he added that he was going to just go over the highlights of the Wyoming laws on ethics that apply to city councils. He said the goal of an ethics law is to do the greatest good for the greatest number of people and to be fair, equitable and impartial. 

“When answering a question of ethics,” Harris said, “do I want to see myself on the front page of the Uinta County Herald for the wrong reasons? Before choosing to act, I have to discern my ethical obligations, disclose any ethical conflicts and disengage. Pretty simple but important questions.”

Harris referred to the Ethics Act: Section 9, Title 13-101, which states that an elected official cannot use their position for private benefit; cannot use any public facilities or equipment for private benefit; and cannot use any information obtained through their position for private benefit. It also prohibits acceptance of gratuities or the solicitation of gratuities, and it is unlawful for the official to have any personal financial interest in public works or contracts. A violation of the ethics law is a crime and is punishable by fines, removal from office and up to 10 years in prison.

“The Ethics Act, Title 15, deals with conflict of interest and states the mayor, council, and immediate family cannot receive any monetary benefit, contracting, cannot solicit or accept freebies, and violation can lead to removal from office,” Harris said. “All officials must provide a financial disclosure. A failure to disclose a conflict of interest is a misdemeanor and can result in a fine and a prison sentence. Also, if a subject comes up where you have a conflict of interest, you must excuse yourself from the discussion, leave the room and must not participate in bullying or trying to persuade anyone concerning the matter.”

Mayor Kent Williams said he appreciated Harris taking the time to provide a review as he thought it was a benefit for all.

Council member Mike Sellers asked it they should schedule periodic reviews or if they should participate in the entire four-hour training.

“I would be happy to come to the council any time for a review,” Judge Harris said. “It is my responsibility to be your mentor. We can schedule the four-hour training any time.”

Evanston City Attorney Amanda Kirby then provided each council member and the mayor with a copy of proposed rules of procedure and order.

“As Robert’s Rules of Order does not govern conduct, I felt we needed something in addition to the Wyoming statutes in order to protect council members and even the public,” Kirby said. “In this day of social media and public attacks, I thought we needed some sort of recourse. I hope you will look at what I’ve prepared and we can discuss it further.”

Kirby’s proposed rules state the city council will abide by the Wyoming Statutes concerning conduct of their meetings and comply with the ethics as reviewed by Judge Harris. The city council follows the Robert’s Rules of Order for parliamentary procedure of regular meetings.  The regular procedure includes the process for setting the agenda; how each agenda item is heard; how motions are made, seconded and approved; discussion and deliberation; and voting.

The additions added to the regular procedures by Kirby include when and how comments can be made on an agenda item, time limits on discussion set only by the mayor at the beginning of the meeting, no discussion on any topic not on the agenda and speakers must be courteous, respectful and refrain from using inappropriate language.

If an opportunity for public input has been placed on the agenda, by the mayor’s sole discretion, those speakers must be residents of Evanston, their time to speak may be limited by the mayor, they must be civil, public input may not be taken on any item that has not been first noted as a public hearing, public input may not be taken on any land use or other application pending before the council, comments must be directed to the body as a whole and not to any individual person and failure to comply with public input rules may result in being asked to leave the meeting.

During a work session, Kirby said, comments from the public are not allowed unless specifically invited or recognized by the mayor and for informational purposes only as part of a presentation.

Under the subject of ethics, Kirby included statements that match the state statutes Harris referred to in his presentation. Kirby also listed eight rules, which include: a reminder that legitimate business is to take place without ill will or anger, all discussion is a matter of record and disparaging language should not be used, all comments should remain on the topic, once a vote has been taken any public criticism should be avoided, do not attribute motives without a basis in facts in a public meeting or forum, avoid using outside parties communications, do not encourage others to act against the rules of conduct, and failure to comply with these rules of ethics and civility could result in expulsion from the meeting.

Mayor Williams said the council would review the proposed rules of procedure and order and discuss it further.

John Bowns with the Evanston Rodeo Series was also on the agenda for the work session and came to ask the council if they would consider holding the rodeo series’ budgeted monies until 2024.

“Because the bleachers will not be completed at the rodeo grounds until sometime in August, we have decided to cancel the series this year,” Bowns said.  “We have explored all other possible solutions but don’t want to take the rodeo out of the community.”

Williams asked Bowns if they could get out of their contracts with stock producers, and Bowns responded that they had only had a verbal agreement, and everyone was very understanding.

Treasurer Trudy Lym told the mayor that they could just leave the amount of money where it is for the next year’s budget.

The council and mayor all thanked Bowns for his hard work and said how much they appreciate what the rodeo series provides to the community.

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