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Commission code of conduct source of discord

By Grace Lovins

Birmingham city commissioners continued working on a commission code of conduct during a workshop session on Monday, June 5, again disagreeing on what the code should include.

Commissioners first reviewed a drafted code of conduct in July of last year after discussing the potential need for a code of conduct in January and February of 2022. In July, commissioners took no action to approve the draft and sent it back to city staff for revisions.

After staff presented revisions, commissioners decided to submit written comments at the March 13 city commission meeting to discuss later. On April 24, commissioners agreed to hold a workshop session to review the draft and discuss what they each wanted to see, considering the varying opinions.

At the workshop on June 5, outgoing city manager Tom Markus explained that city staff had compiled a lot of information for the commission to review based on codes from other communities across the country. The goal for the workshop was to have the commission engage with each other and come to a consensus about what the code should say.

Mayor pro tem Elaine McLain submitted the code of conduct from the city of Yakima, Washington. Yakima’s code included one page of bulleted items that supplemented the guidelines and responsibilities laid out for their city council through their code of ethics and other documents.

Commissioners Andrew Haig and Brad Host preferred the simplicity of Yakima’s code, with Haig suggesting the commission look at taking an incremental approach: creating a short document and seeing down the line if anything needed to be revisited or added.

Birmingham’s drafted code of conduct includes items that aren’t written elsewhere, according to mayor Therese Longe, including the role of the commission, and items including codifying that commissioners are advised against attending other board and committee meetings.

“I know everybody likes [Yakima’s code] as a simple page, but it doesn’t exist by itself as a simple page because without all the rest of it there’s no consequences, accountability, no teeth. That is the consideration: do we want one of these at all? If we want something simple, we can do it and say it’s simple, but down the road if one of us or someone in the public thinks something has been violated, we have nothing to back it up,” Longe said.

Other commissioners disagreed about the need of a code. Commissioner Pierre Boutros argued that conduct is common sense and if a commissioner can’t act appropriately, they shouldn’t be a commissioner.

“If I read page by page the code of ethics and the rules that we already have, I can’t think of anything to add to it. If I had to think of anything extra not covered in that book, I swear I could not come up with anything,” Boutros said.

Haig suggested using Yakima’s code as an example of how things can be summarized so the commission can distill the current document to a few key points. Commissioner Clinton Baller proposed that, given the commission is disagreeing on what should be included and others disagree on the need for a code, Longe, McLain and incoming city manager Jana Ecker get together to write a code and put in on an upcoming agenda for a vote.

Longe said they can address that consideration in another meeting. No formal action is taken during workshop sessions, but the commission does plan to continue working on the code at a later session.

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