Should local cities, counties – even groups like the Utah Transit Authority – have some kind of unbiased ethics commission available to unhappy citizens and accused locally-elected officials alike?
That’s the idea now being studied by state Sen. Curt Bramble, R-Provo.
Bramble’s concern comes from recent events in Provo City.
He believes that both defenders and accusers of former Provo City Councilman Steve Turley are dissatisfied with the current ethics procedures for local governments – “They aren’t fair and don’t work.”
“It’s clear that something needs to happen,” Bramble told UtahPolicy.
Bramble said he watched the Turley incident carefully, since it was happening in his own city, and has talked extensively to both sides.
“Dramatic changes need to occur in the municipal ethics process,” Bramble said.
He has opened a bill file for the 2012 Legislature, which starts in three weeks. But Bramble is still talking to various individuals and groups deciding what is the best way to proceed.
According to reports in The Salt Lake Tribune, Turley resigned his council seat in September just before the council was getting ready to vote on action against him.
On a different front, the Utah County Attorney’s Office has filed charges against Turley.
As reported in the Tribune, Turley faces seven counts of communications fraud, two counts of exploiting a vulnerable adult and one count of engaging in a pattern of criminal activity. If convicted, he could face from one to 15 years in prison on each count.
Turley’s court case was recently postponed until March, and is still playing itself out.
Bramble’s thinking is to form some kind of umbrella ethics commission whose members could look into citizen ethics complaints concerning locally-elected officials, like a city council, mayor or county commission, or appointed officials, like the Utah Transit Authority Board (which recently just went through its own ethical standard-setting process).
Each city or county wouldn’t have its own ethics commission. Rather, there would be one commission to hear all complaints against local officials.
And the commission wouldn’t just be a place where local officials would be accused, but also a place where they themselves could go to clear up complaints/rumors against them.
In those cases, says Bramble, the commission could actually clear the name of unfairly accused public officials, hopefully before the issues “became a media circus,” as some have seen the Turley affair.
Bramble said local Provo citizens had been trying for years to get someone to listen to their concerns about Turley.
But nothing was really done, the senator adds, until the Provo Herald newspaper ran a multi-part series on the issues.
“Councilman Turley didn’t have a forum to defend himself.” His accusers “didn’t have a forum where they could be heard,” Bramble added.
Two years ago, after a very public and brutal House Ethics Committee investigation of a House member, the Legislature reformed its own ethics process.
Bramble said he purposely “pushed myself” into that hearing process as a witness because the accused House member – Majority Whip Greg Hughes, R-Draper – had been inappropriately accused of improper actions on an issue and a bill that Bramble himself was involved in.
In short, on that issue the charges were clearly false, said Bramble, as the public record in Senate and House hearings showed.
Now, in the reformed legislative ethics process, such matters can be dealt with.
But there doesn’t appear to be such a process – or fair process – available to citizens making a complaint against a local official or the local official given an unbiased forum before which to defend himself.
The Utah Constitution says legislators are the sole deciders of their colleagues fitness to serve – the 29 senators decide on the Senate side, the 75 House members on their side.
But should a seven-member city council sit in judgment (alone) over a one of their colleagues? Asked Bramble.
Or would it be better to at have an “independent, unbiased” group – a state-wide local ethics commission – at least hear the complaints against a locally-elected or appointed official?
“Those are the discussions we’re having right now,” said Bramble.
“Do we set up a municipal ethics commission,” perhaps made up of retired judges and other appointed officials – as the legislative ethics commission consists of – “to hear (complaints) and decide on some credible evidence, on some evidentiary basis?” asked Bramble.
He thinks there is merit in pursuing that course.