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Charter panel endorses ethics code draft

NEW ULM– The anti-nepotism clause in New Ulm’s city code is expected to be relaxed, but the addition of a new code of ethics could prevent unfair influence from elected officials.

New Ulm’s Charter Commission began meeting in March to make changes to the city code. The main goal of the commission was to make changes to the anti-nepotism language that was deemed too strict.

In April, the commissioners made a formal recommendation to change the anti-nepotism language. The new language no longer prohibits relatives of elected officials from working for the city, but added language saying the mayor or city council could not “influence or attempt to influence the hiring, transfer, suspension, promotion, discharge, reward, discipline or the adjustment of grievance of a related person.”

The commission acknowledges the change to the clause would not resolve all conflicts of interests, but it establishes reasonable expectations for elected officials.

The commission decided to look into establishing a code of ethics in the charter to further detail how elected officials should conduct themselves during conflicts of interest.

Establishing a code of ethics was considered an effective alternative. Several sample ethic codes from other Minnesota cities were considered.

Commissioner Michelle Markgraf said she preferred Duluth’s conflict of interest section. She said Duluth’s code covers both appointed and elected officials.

Chairman Duane Hansel agreed the Duluth ethics code was strong. He noted the Duluth section specifically cited any decision made by an official affecting their financial interest was considered a conflict of interest and should alert the council of the conflict and abstain from voting.

Hansel only question was whether there were other conflicts other than financial that should be cited in the code.

The commission believed there likely were other conflicts but doubted any code could be written to cover all examples.

Commissioner Linda Heine said some biases should be prohibited, like financial incentives; however, a strong opinion on a specific issue was not necessarily a conflict of interest.

“I feel like limiting it to financial is important; otherwise we are going to be so broad,” she said.

City Manager Chris Dalton said in reviewing council agendas, he does look for potential conflicts and reaches out to council members beforehand. He said recently council members have been good about recusing themselves from potential conflicts.

Commissioner Rick Jensen agreed financial incentive was the most obvious conflict of interest and should be specified in the code.

City Attorney Robert Scott agreed it was impossible to cite every possible conflict in advance. He said they are inherently specific to a certain decision, but financial incentive is an easy one to identify.

He said statutes and case law had already established financial interest as a conflict. Even if it were not in New Ulm’s charter, elected officials would still be bound by it.

The commission ultimately voted to recommend an ethics code similar to the Duluth model. Markgraf made the motion, requesting the city attorney create a language for the charter with similar wording as the Duluth provision, with a second from Heine.

The commission will schedule another meeting to review the code of ethics language before bringing all charter amendments to the City Council.

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