Ethics board discusses advisory opinion on Host
By Grace Lovins
The Birmingham Ethics Board on Tuesday, April 18, reviewed a draft advisory opinion on the actions taken by city commissioner Brad Host towards the end of 2022 relative to the city's pending 2040 Master Plan and decided to reconvene to discuss a new draft at the panel's next meeting.
In November of 2022, Host had used social media, paper flyers and other methods in regards to the city’s draft of the 2040 Master Plan and the ethics board previously acknowledged that he was perpetuating misinformation outside of the proper communication channels. City manager Tom Markus requested the advisory opinion from the board in March.
At the meeting on April 18, the board reviewed the circulated draft opinion written by chair James Robb. Because the matter was not a formal complaint against Host but a request for advisory opinion, the opinion is meant to be educational. The opinion states that Host’s actions appeared to the board as though he attempted to influence, used improper channels of communication and, ultimately, his actions fell short of the code of ethics.
At an earlier meeting prior to the draft opinion, board members were generally critical of Host's actions, citing issues of truthfulness, lack of acknowledgement in his correspondence with the public that he is a city commissioner, undermining public confidence in city government and failure to disclose ownership of property in one area of the city that could be impacted by part of the 2040 Master Plan.
Robb and John Schrot agreed with the opinions stated in the draft, but Sophie Fierro-Share disagreed on a few matters about Host’s intentions.
“I’ve come to understand that the ethics ordinance has two parts to it. One is a specific requirement of Section 2324, and the other is a more hopeful expression that city officials will behave so well they will never give any citizen cause for concern. The latter part is found in section 2321 where the ethics ordinance says, ‘City officials are bound to observe the high standards of ethical conduct and that their official conduct should be above reproach, avoiding conduct which may tend to undermine respect for city officials, employees and for the city as an institution,” Fierro-Share said.
“I don’t think the city commission adopted an ordinance that makes minimum standards for city officials and highest possible ethical standards, the standards which are in fact not measurable or workable. All sorts of conduct might cause a citizen to lose respect for city government. Not everything that causes a citizen to lose respect for their government is an ethical issue,” she continued.
Fierro-Share explained that she believes Host wasn’t intending to cause problems and was instead encouraging public engagement. She says that she doesn’t see anything wrong with encouraging people to make their views known to the planning board and that he wasn’t trying to influence anybody. She also disagreed with Robb’s opinion that Host intended to hinder the work of the planning board or influence any decisions.
“While there is a danger that advocacy can be perceived by some as crossing the line into improper attempts to influence the decision-making process, commissioner Host did not cross the line, but he should be mindful that his actions have consequences and that some citizens could draw conclusions from his actions that he did not intend. He should recognize the possibility and be certain that he is encouraging respectful civic dialogue,” said Fierro-Share.
Robb disagreed, noting that Host’s actions looked to him as if it was an attempt to influence because the board knows that many of the communications weren’t entirely true.
“Host corrected [the inaccurate communications] in large, but they were already out there. It already stirred the pot and what concerned me is the very reason why city commissioners should not be at the meetings of advisory committees. It may tend to hinder the work that they are obligated to do with independence, the very same standard that we have to do our job here. For whatever reason, if they feel reluctant to explain their views, feel reluctant to act on a certain matter, that’s hindering the work and that is outside of city channels because here the city commission is ultimately going to vote on the matter,” Robb said.
Schrot also noted that the board’s task is not to determine whether there was a breach of the ordinance but if the conduct conformed to the code. He noted that Fierro-Share will need to formulate a dissent if she disagrees with the opinions written in the revised draft after it is circulated. The board will reconvene to discuss a revised draft at a later date.