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VOL. 122 | NO. 101 | Friday, June 1, 2007

City Council, County Commission Move Ahead With Tighter Ethics Codes

By Bill Dries

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Memphis City Council chairman Tom Marshall will make a renewed bid for a more specific city code of ethics Tuesday when the council takes a final vote on the ordinance.

The County Commission also is scheduled to take a final vote this month on a separate code of ethics that would govern elected and appointed officials. Both bodies are required by state law to have those rules approved by the end of June.

A council committee voted in May to recommend a less detailed code built around a bare-bones model ordinance suggested by the University of Tennessee's Municipal Technical Advisory Service (MTAS).

Marshall said this week in a letter to council members that he plans to offer a substitute ordinance Tuesday that would make an appointed city ethics panel the final word on ethics complaints in city government. From there, any action could be appealed to Chancery Court.

"The primary difference is I'm saying let's put our faith completely in the hands of an ethics board," Marshall said. "They're saying let it make a recommendation and let that recommendation come back to the council. I think that just puts us right back into the frying pan."

Frying pan and fire

Council members Rickey Peete and Edmund Ford were arrested on federal bribery charges last year and are awaiting trial. Marshall was among the council leaders who sought to censure them and ask them to resign.

The move failed on a 6-to-6 tie after an intense debate. Peete didn't vote on the matter. Ford did - voting no.

"If we establish an independent ethics board that has final say with regard to any determination of a potential transgression ... it removes any kind of potential mean-spiritedness that could come out of it," Marshall said. "That's where we are. I think we're in a terribly divisive situation right now."

What's more, Peete announced in a letter Thursday to Marshall that he is resigning from the council effective today.

County Commissioner Mike Ritz is leading the drafting of a more specific county ethics code that would use the same kind of panel but with more ground rules.

The commission has had its own experience with a member accused of criminal wrongdoing. Michael Hooks Sr. was chairman when he was charged in August 2005 with accepting $24,000 in bribes as part of the Tennessee Waltz corruption probe.

Hooks resigned a year later, the same day he pleaded guilty to the charges in federal court. He was sentenced to 26 months in federal prison.

Ritz said there could be attempts to make the county proposal less specific - or there could be more debate - next week during the commission's vote on second reading.

The commission's debate has included warnings that too much detail might trip up essentially honest office holders who are ethical but find themselves in a minefield of regulations. "I don't want to get in trouble for having a cup of coffee with someone," was a frequent refrain of County Commissioner Sidney Chism.

Continuing education

Both ethics bodies, as proposed, would offer legal opinions to local officials about ethics quandaries. They also would have to take ethics courses.

"At the end of the day, it's not the ordinance so much; it's the fact that the education is in place and will be ongoing continuously," Ritz said. "We'll still have people violating the law. It doesn't make any difference what the law is. There are going to be people who don't know or don't care - probably the latter."

Marshall also plans to offer at a later date a proposed City Charter amendment that would go to voters on the October ballot as they also vote in the races for mayor and City Council. The council would have to approve the referendum.

It would give the council the power to oust its own members and possibly other city officials if they are accused of wrongdoing. Marshall acknowledged it promises to reignite the council's earlier debate over whether an elected official is innocent until proven guilty in terms of continuing to hold his or her office.

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