News

September 11, 2003

Barring an unexpected glitch, an ordinance to expand the functions of the commission charged with enforcing New Castle County government's ethics code will be ready to be put before County Council in October, according to Councilwoman Karen Venezky, one of its co-sponsors.

An ad hoc committee of department general managers and other county officials, which she chairs, has been meeting quietly to develop consensus legislation which would complete the overhaul of the commission following the en masse resignation of all its members in July, 2002.

While debating last winter whether to reconstitute the commission or turn the job of overseeing ethics matters in county government to the state Public Integrity Commission, County Council members were quick to agree that the commission needed something of a new direction.

The state agency balked at taking on the additional responsibility and Council and County Executive Thomas Gordon appointed new members to fill out the commission. While the commission was going through the process of organizing and setting up shop this spring and summer, the ad hoc committee focused on determining what changes needed to be made in the law.

Draft legislation was presented to the committee at a meeting on Sept. 9  While Venezky emphasized that it is still a proverbial work-in-process and not a final version of what she and Council president Christopher Coons will present, she did draw acknowledgement from everyone around the table that they have no reservations about what appear to be the key provisions.

One would more specifically spell out who will be required to submit annual statements of their financial interests beyond income from their county jobs.

In place of the code's present vague reference to employees "who perform work that is administrative in nature," the proposed revision specifies the chief administrative officer, county attorney, deputy attorney and assistant county attorneys, Council's attorney, county auditor and Council's policy director. Elected officials, which includes the county executive, Council members and the so-called 'row officers', were already included. Lower-ranking employees, such as code enforcement officers, land-use planners and purchasing agents, would continue to be included.

The draft legislation does not change what is required to be reported. Principal items are outside businesses, significant debts, real estate holdings, large gifts and financial relationships with any firm doing business with the county.

The other key provision establishes a responsibility for the ethics commission to provide education and training to county employees concerning their handling of county business. It was agreed at the meeting that, because the commission is a volunteer panel and its staff consists of only two people working part time, the actual training can be done by designated persons in the county's human resources department in collaboration with the commission without impeding the commission's authority, integrity or independence.

It was announced at the committee meeting that the commission has set up an office in the county Government Center and has hired Rose Killian as its part-time lawyer.

Both Coons and commission chairman Dennis Glower expressed satisfaction over the degree of cooperation between the county administration and the commission during its reorganization process.

Venezky said the underlying intent of the proposed ordinance, particularly in its defining an educational function, is to avoid having the commission assume an adversarial posture in its relationship with both county officials and employees.

The draft legislation specifies a requirement for confidentiality concerning matters brought before the commission by county employees. Commissioners would be required to sign a confidentiality agreement which would remain in force after their terms expire or they otherwise leave the commission. The only penalties provided for violating the agreement, however, are removal from the commission, "censure by County Council" or both.

The commission staff will be required to conduct regular office hours, keep a reference file of all opinions it issues, confer on a regular basis with general managers and the chief administrative officer, and conduct a "customer satisfaction survey."

There is also a so-called 'sunset' provision in the proposed ordinance which would require the county executive and County Council to review both the code of conduct and the effective of the commission in 2008 or five years after passage of the new legislation.

2003. All rights reserved.

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