Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Does Two of Something Make it Common?

The proposed code of ethics for the City of Richardson has a six month statute of limitations. In Monday's council work session, a city staffer explained to the council why this was included. In a PowerPoint presentation, the number one reason given was:

"The inclusion of a time limitation is a common [emphasis added] feature of other area cities' policies."

After the jump, an analysis of whether the math is compatible with the language.

The obvious rhetorical question is, "If everyone else jumped off the cliff, should you do it, too?" But there's something even more suspect in this argument. Is it even true that everyone else is jumping off the cliff? Council members asked how long the statute of limitations was in other cities. A city staffer said Richardson surveyed 13 cities. Of those 13, only two had a statute of limitations of six months, Richardson's proposed limitation. Two more had a limitation of one year. One had a limitation of two years. Another council member asked how many cities had no statute of limitations. The answer: seven of 13. (I know that doesn't add up. But that's only the start of the bad arithmetic.)

Let's recap. Seven of 13, a majority of the cities surveyed, have no statute of limitations. Only two of 13, or barely 15%, have a statute of limitations as short as six months. The City Manager called this a "mishmash." The mayor repeatedly said the statute of limitations range from six months to two years. Contrary to the claim, a six month statute of limitations is not "common," it's rare. Any statute of limitations at all is in the minority. What's "common" are the cities that have no statute of limitations on ethics violations.

Go read that bullet point again about why Richardson's code of ethics includes a six month statute of limitations. The argument made to sell this code of ethics is dubious at best. There's something ironic about a code of ethics built on dubious ground. Eliminate the statute of limitations.

Another concern I have with the proposed ethics policy, the confidentiality clause, wasn't even brought up by city staff in the work session. To his credit, Amir Omar did express his reservations on this point, as he did in the public meeting later. Other council members then followed his lead. To me, this clause is flagrantly misguided. If the city council is guilty of wrongdoing in a closed, executive session, this confidentiality clause forbids any council member from revealing the wrongdoing -- to the public, to the city attorney, or even to his own attorney, in case he seeks legal advice about his own legal liability. A code of ethics should protect the public interest and not be a shield to protect council members from disclosure of wrongdoing or even from only embarrassment.

The council decided to postpone voting on the code of ethics while these and other concerns are addressed. Good for them. I urge them to get them right in the next draft.

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