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Council approves code of conduct changes

POSTED February 14, 2014 8:40 p.m.

Although Councilmember Steven Nascimento’s ordinance related to campaign finances did not gain approval at Tuesday’s meeting, his other resolution aiming to refine the council’s Code of Conduct was approved in a 3-2 vote.

The ordinance, which adds a section to the existing Code of Conduct on ex-parte communications, was voted in with opposition from Councilmembers Amy Bublak and Bill DeHart.

According to Nascimento, the change would reflect existing rules, simply creating a reminder for new and current Councilmembers.

“These are existing rules that we have to abide by,” said Nascimento. “But since it is not in our Code of Conduct, I was not aware of it until I attended a recent conference. If I wasn’t aware of it, I thought it would be good to include for future reference.”

By adding a section on ex-parte communications, the Council will have specific guidelines on how they should respond should a quasi-judicial circumstance come forth. Nascimento says that although the Council has not had any quasi-judicial circumstances in recent years, the addition would help council members know what to do and how to act under such conditions.

“It provides a means of how we should conduct ourselves should we be in that situation,” said Nascimento.

City Attorney Phaedra Norton clarified the meaning of ex-parte communications as being a communication between governmental decision makers and third parties outside of official meetings. Under the ordinance, Councilmembers would be required to disclose the matters discussed during the unofficial meeting, as a means to ensure council transparency.

In the case of a conditional use permit appeal, should one involved party that is either for or against the appeal come and speak to a councilmember outside of an official meeting, the Councilmember would then be required to disclose to the other involved party what had been discussed. According to Norton and Nascimento, the required disclosure would help keep all parties informed of developments, while providing them time to respond.

Councilmember Bill DeHart seemed hesitant to accept the ordinance, saying that he didn’t fully understand its implications.

“I feel like I’m being set up,” said DeHart. “I always talk to people on both sides of the issue.”

Both Nascimento and Councilmember Forrest White explained to DeHart that the law already requires the Councilmembers to disclose such information, but that by adding it to the Code of Conduct, it would be easier for Councilmembers to know exactly how they should respond.

“We’re not reinventing the wheel,” said White. “We’re just saying that the wheel has already been invented, and we just have to abide by it.”

Turlock resident John Beckman commended the Council for considering the item, saying it promotes council transparency.

“This one is a pretty good idea,” said Beckman. “It’s about full disclosure, however, I would strike the language that says ex-parte communications should be avoided because it is allowed by our constitution.”

Noting Beckman’s suggestion, Nascimento agreed to remove the sentence within the amendment that suggested Councilmembers avoid such communications, while suggesting the Council move forward with the item.

Councilwoman Bublak, who said she believes the measure could help in their push for complete transparency, said that she would like more time for the ordinance to be reviewed, as she requested it be more specific about whom the Council members are allowed to speak to, and what must be disclosed after such instances.

After amending the ordinance to remove the sentence regarding “avoiding” such situations, the Council voted to approve the resolution, with Bublak and DeHart voting ‘no.’

On Tuesday, the City Council also:

-          Received a presentation from the Future Business Leaders of America from Pitman High School and Dutcher Middle School

-          Were updated on capital projects and building activity within the City

-          Voted to place a continuance on an ordinance regarding campaign contributions

-          Adopted the East Stanislaus Integrated Regional Water Management Plan

The next City Council meeting will be held at 6 p.m. on Feb. 25 at City Hall, located at 156 S. Broadway.

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