A major revision to the city's Code of Conduct is in the works

Dover’s city council will vote on a major revision to the ethics code.

Sponsored by Council President Tim Slavin and First District councilmen Tanner Polce and Matthew Lindell -- the panel’s two junior members – it was proposed Sept. 12 and unanimously approved in a Committee of the Whole meeting Oct. 24.

A first reading was held Nov. 13, with the final reading Monday, Nov. 27. If approved, the ordinance would take effect when signed by Mayor Robin Christiansen. Requiring council members to disclose their finances would be a first in Delaware, although other municipalities nationwide have similar policies.

Polce said he started thinking about an ordinance revision after he was elected.

“When I assumed office, a group of community members approached me about what the orientation process was for bringing in a new council person,” Polce said. The question was whether new members follow the same guidelines as state legislators and what kind of training is provided, if any.

“That planted the seed in my mind that perhaps we should delve deeper into this issue,” he said, and it was pushed to the fore by ethics issues in Wilmington’s city council.

Acknowledging standards of conduct

The proposal brings the city’s ordinance up to date, to “ensure that council members are operating in a transparent fashion when it relates to financial holdings,” Polce said.

All elected and appointed city officials would be required to receive and read the city’s Standards of Ethical Conduct, then sign and acknowledge they’ve read it. This would be done yearly, electronically or in hard copy, he said.

Council members would complete a financial disclosure report modeled after a document published by the state Public Integrity Commission. All elected officials in the General Assembly and the state’s executive branch must file this disclosure each year, Polce said.

The PIC oversees and administers the state’s ethics laws, financial disclosure laws and lobbyist regulations. William F. Tobin Jr., executive director of the PIC, has offered to come to a council meeting and offer guidance on the procedures to follow, Polce said.

The ordinance, Polce said, “gets to an issue that we’ve been facing, and that’s to operate in an open and transparent fashion and to really, ultimately, hold ourselves accountable where potential conflicts of interest, rooted in financial holdings, come to play.”

Councilman David Anderson had concerns about disclosing information about 401(k) accounts and how funds in council members’ accounts are managed. Slavin, however, said in the course of their work councilmen may be asked to choose fund managers, and the public should know if there could be a relationship between their official duties and their private finances.

“It would be important for us to disclose any relationships that we have so that we would not have even a sniff of a conflict of interest on this,” he said.

“I’m going to go with the fact that this is a system that works,” Slavin continued. “It works for judges, it works for legislators, it works for every appointed official in the state of Delaware.”

Christiansen supports the proposed ordinance.

“I think that the public in these days and times require us to be above reproach with the citizens that we serve,” Christiansen said. “And I think that all of us in this room serve with integrity and honor and to the best of our ability and I think that once we set an example to the public that we are doing so, I think that their trust and belief in the actions of council and city staff certainly will be confirmed as to what is in the best interests of our citizens.”

The filings with the Public Integrity Commission would not require council members to reveal their income levels but would ask the source of their income and their indebtedness over a certain amount.

The revisions update an old, but reliable ordinance, Polce said, adding he began work before Councilman Brian Lewis raised the issue of whether Polce had a conflict of interest himself. That matter hinged on a vote to sell the old city library to Wesley College; Polce has worked as an adjunct instructor at the school but said that position had no bearing on his decision to vote in favor.

“We just wanted to enhance what we had. We wanted a reciprocated model that works and has been proven to work and make it viable for us in the city of Dover,” Polce said. The state has strong guidelines to use as a model.

Polce credited City Clerk Traci McDowell with putting in “a tremendous amount of work” in helping prepare the draft ordinance.

The proposal also reaffirms the Ethics Commission, a five-person panel appointed by the mayor and confirmed by the council. To help avoid any conflict of interest, those on the commission are prohibited from holding any federal, state, county or municipal office or appointment.