Ross commissioners considering ethics code that goes beyond conduct rules created by state

August 24, 2018

A proposed code of ethics for Ross Township employees and elected or appointed officials would place strict rules on the use of those position for personal gain.

The measure developed by Steve Korbel, president of the board of commissioners, is designed to send a message that working for or representing the township is not supposed to be a source of additional income beyond the pay and benefits already provided.

“In the past I’ve seen too many people taking elected or appointed positions to serve themselves instead of the people they are supposed to represent,” Korbel said. “This ordinance says that’s not going to happen anymore.”

Commissioners are compensated with premium-level medical insurance for themselves with the option of purchasing plans to cover their families. They also get an annual $4,200 salary that is set by the estate’s First Class Township Code.

If approved, the measure would, among other things: forbid township employees and elected or appointed officials from doing business with the township, influencing the awarding of contracts in which they have a financial or personal interest, representing someone in a matter with which they have a conflict of interest and being paid by the township for goods and services.

A provision that applies the new rules for two years after an employee or official ends their relationship with the township raised some concerns.

“When I signed onto this board, no one told me I would not be able to represent myself,” said Commissioner Rick Avon. “I really don’t want to curtail my rights. You can make all the decisions you want for future boards, that way people coming in know what they are sacrificing. But when I walk out of here, I’m no longer a commissioner. To tell me that I can’t come and talk on behalf of myself and my family is absolutely, 100-percent wrong.”

Under the new rules, Avon, who is an architect, would not be allowed to represent clients until two-years after leaving office.

Former commissioner Lana Mazur, who lost re-election in November, also objected to the two-year prohibition because it is a year longer than the state ethics law. She also balked at a provision that extends the ban to family members.

Mazur’s family operates a vehicle towing service that regularly does work for the township. If the ordinance is approved, their company could not be awarded a contract for towing that the board currently is putting out for competitive bid.

Korbel said extending the time officials must wait before being hired to lobby the board on a matter is an effort to “do something that’s above and beyond what the state has done.”

“We’re making a statement here,” he said. “Everything that is in here is related to something that has happened before in this township. I believe there’s a strong need for this.“In an interview following the Aug. 6 meeting, Korbel clarified that the ordinance would not prevent a former official or employee from speaking before the board on issues with which they are concerned.

“It would be fine for them to come before the board to talk about something like speeding in their neighborhoods,” he said. “But they can’t do it if they are being compensated.”

Korbel used his own position on the board and his job as a lawyer as an example for why the two-year wait time is needed.

“The idea is to prevent somebody like me leaving office and then going out and getting hired to represent somebody before the board,” he said. “We don’t want situations where people can say: ‘Hire me to do this, I can get you the results you want because I know those people’.“Also covered under the proposed ordinance is a prohibition on employees and officials soliciting or accepting gifts, loans or anything of monetary value from anybody seeking to do business or who has a financial relationship with the township.

The exception to that rule are gifts classified as being of “minimus” value, which was set at a total of $500 per year for employees and $25 “per transaction” for elected and appointed officials with a cap of $500 a year.

The law also makes an exception for gifts received from “a friend, parent, spouse, child or other close relative under circumstances which make it clear that the gift is motivated by a family relationship or personal friendship rather than the position of the employee.”

Other restrictions in the proposed law include not using information the township possesses for personal gain; not using township owned equipment, supplies and property; performing outside work other than their regular jobs without first obtaining approval from the township manager; and accepting honoraria, speaking fees or any other item of value as personal compensation. Such fees, however, could be donated to a charity or non-profit organization.

Asking employees to perform political work such as campaigning and fundraising are prohibited under the law and employees would be barred from engaging in political activity during work hours.

Employees who violate the ordinance could face a reprimand, suspension or termination from their jobs.

Elected or appointed officials could be fined up to $1,000, a year in jail, or both for violating the ordinance.

The penalty also calls for any person who receives financial gain by violating the ordinance to repay three times the amount they received to the state or township treasury.

The ordinance is expected to be formally introduced at the board’s Aug. 20 meeting and could come up for a vote in September.

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