2011-01-05 / Front Page

Howell council splits, but passes code of conduct

BY CHRISTINA HABERSTROH

HOWELL — Some disagreement among members of the Howell Township Council led to a close vote, but in the end a code of conduct for elected officials and members of the municipality’s appointed boards, commissions and committees was enacted.

The purpose of the code of conduct is to “have fair, ethical and accountable local government that has earned the public’s full confidence for integrity.”

The issue was before the council on Dec. 14.

Deputy Mayor Angela Dalton, who eventually voted no on the establishment of a code of conduct, said that on an ethical level, it would be a mistake to establish this code of conduct.

“We already have laws and rules and ordinances that deal with conflicts of interest, that deal with people who are on boards who do not act in accordance with what they are obligated to do,” said Dalton, whose term on the governing body ended on Dec. 31.

Under the code of conduct, Dalton said, someone can get reprimanded for making personal comments that do not pertain to the business of that particular municipal body. People could potentially get into trouble if they do not appreciate someone’s sense of humor, she added.

The code of conduct states, “They [members] shall refrain from interrupting other speakers, making personal comments not germane to the business of the body, and shall refrain from otherwise interfering with the orderly conduct of meetings.”

According to Dalton, there are state laws that regulate municipal boards, and she said Howell already has everything in place to address the conduct of people who are volunteers and those who are elected officials.

“If there are things in place, I am wondering why we have people who are on committees in this town, who by nature are representatives of this town, and do some of the things they do and we have allowed it to occur,” CouncilmanWilliam Gotto said.

“I don’t think it’s an appropriate use of the council to be used for people’s [possible] personal vendettas,” Dalton responded.

Gotto said the intent of the code of conduct is to help with the issues that come along with people who attack one another verbally during meetings.

Gotto added in an interview with Greater Media Newspapers that the goal of the code of conduct is to increase the professionalism within the community, and that it is not meant to be “in your face.”

“There is no intent for us to use it in a political or punitive fashion,” he said.

Members of municipal boards shall “be responsible for making honest statements and no member shall make a statement when they know the statement is false, or with the intent to mislead other members or the public,” according to the code of conduct.

“We have all talked about it. We have all talked about these people, these issues. We have sat during hearings and saw a member of a zoning board attack a member of a planning board at a public meeting, and that is the garbage that needs to stop. And that was the sole intent of what this [code of conduct] was about,” Gotto said at the council meeting.

Councilwoman Susan Schroeder Clark said participation in local government has dropped because of incivility toward public officials. She said good people have chosen not to run for office because of the incivility displayed by some members of the public.

“It’s difficult because at the end of the day, what is most important to all of us is the ability to do exactly what we are doing — talking,” Clark said. “If we pass this [code of conduct], as much as I understand the intent, I think we are doing a disservice to people who take the time [to volunteer] and are concerned about reprimand.”

Mayor RobertWalsh said the reason he thinks people are not getting involved with the community is because they are afraid of getting slandered, and he said this code of conduct may protect them.

The code of conduct states, “Members themselves have the primary responsibility to assure that standards are understood and met, and that the public can continue to have full confidence in the integrity of government.”

Individuals found in violation of the code of conduct may be removed from the board on which they serve as a volunteer. Elected officials could only be removed from office subject to state statutes.

After discussion, the vote passed in favor of the new code of conduct with Gotto, Councilwoman Pauline Smith and Walsh voting yes, and Clark and Dalton voting no.

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