The Neosho City Council reviewed a draft of an ethics section that could potentially be added to the city's charter during their council meeting Tuesday evening.

City attorney Steve Hays prepared the draft, after council members discussed the city's current ethics code in the Sept. 3 and Sept. 17 council meetings.

He said the proposed language is in line with the spirit of the city's ethics code as it is currently, though it does not mirror the entire code.

"Charter provisions are typically not as detailed as the code provisions, but this sets parameters and directives for each council as we go forward," Hays said.

The language addresses several ethics prohibitions, including improper use of public property and conflicts of interest, while the ethics board would also be addressed under the potential charter addition.

Neosho Mayor Richard Davidson said in the prior meeting, and reiterated on Tuesday, that he does not believe the city's current ethics code has enough teeth.

"What we're trying to say here is, it's a two-fold issue: one, setting forth some basic expectations of elected officials and setting them forth in a matter that the elected officials themselves can't change," Davidson said.

The proposed draft was sent back to Hays, on a 4-1 vote, with Mayor Pro Tem Steve Hart dissenting, to change a line that says "council shall provide in the code penalties for violation of ethic prohibitions."

Whether or not the ethics section will be added to the city's charter would be up to voters to decide. Davidson asked City Clerk Nora Houdyshell to confirm the deadline to put an issue on the April ballot, and to alert council of that date in their next meeting.

Councilman Charles Collinsworth offered his support for the move, and Councilman Tom Workman said he too is in favor of letting the voters have their say in the matter.

"If the people want it, let them vote it in," Workman said.

Hart, meanwhile, cited concerns that adding the section to the charter could create a political tool for present or future council members.

"We sit here for the last 40, 50 years and we haven't had a problem, it's not broke, why are we trying to fix it?" Hart said. "Why are we trying to make it a political tool for someone to use against other council members?"

Hart also referred to the safeguards in place in a court to protect an innocent defendant, and said he did not see those safeguards in the proposal, though Davidson said the city does have an appeals process in place.

"I see a political tool to let three councilmen control a council and being able to kick off councilmen at their whim," Hart continued. "I am for all types of ethics. If someone wants to ask me anything or hold me accountable do it to my face, don't do it any other way, like this may be. So I say, if it ain't broke, there again, why are we fixing it?"

Councilman David Ruth also questioned the necessity of the addition. It was Ruth who first drew attention to the city's code of ethics, when he proposed that it be eliminated in the Sept. 3 council meeting.

The vote to kill the city's code of ethics fell 2-3, with Ruth and Hart in favor, and instead began the council's discussion of strengthening the city's ethics requirements by looking to add it to the charter, which would require councils to gain voter approval to change it.

Ruth said in the Sept. 17 council meeting that his original intent in the proposal to eliminate the ethics code had been an attempt to be more transparent to Neosho citizens, and that it had stemmed from a previous council discussion regarding the city's ongoing legal argument with the Neosho Transportation Development District.

In the earlier meeting, councilmen Hart and Ruth had asked for an open discussion regarding the city's legal battle with the TDD, though other council members had hesitated to discuss it because it had been handled previously in closed session, as is the case with many legal issues.

While Ruth questioned the necessity of the charter addition, he did not object to putting it before the voters.

"I've never violated any of this, I've never seen any other council member violate any of this," Ruth said. "But if you think it's a big danger to society, go for it."

The council discussion grew heated at times.

Following Ruth and Hart's statements, Collinsworth said council members with nothing to hide should not be "defensive" about the proposal.
"I sense a great deal of defensiveness about this and I don't know, why worry if you're not doing anything wrong?"
Collinsworth said. "I entrust the people of Neosho. If this looks cumbersome or this looks shady, they can vote it down."

Collinsworth said he disagrees that the city has never had ethical problems, and said he has no problem putting some "more teeth" in the charter that deal with ethics.

"I really worry about anybody that becomes defensive about it," Collinsworth said.

"So you're insinuating that I've been unethical?" Ruth asked.

Earlier in the meeting, Ruth also pointed to the ethics code and said it is important to remember why it was put in place in the first place.

The city has had the ethics code since 2010.

Ruth said the code was put in place to quiet former Councilwoman Heather Bowers from revealing details of closed session discussions.

"This law was put into place just to keep a councilwoman quiet from talking about what was going on behind closed doors, let's be clear about that," Ruth said. "Let's call it what it is, let's don't make it something it's not. That's what it was enacted for."

However, Davidson, who was on council at the time, said that was not council's intent in adopting the code.

"No, it was not," Davidson said. "I was there when it was enacted, it was enacted to say 'there are times when councils need to talk about things, and those conversations need to remain between the council and the city attorney until they're resolved.'"

If the ethics addition does go before voters in April, and is approved, Neosho would not be the first municipality to include its ethics policies in the city's charter.

Hays said he is aware of other cities who have included their ethics in their charter, while he is also aware of several with an ethics code, and some that have neither.

Workman asked Hays for his thoughts on the issue, though Hays declined to answer, stating that it is a council decision.
• • •
For more information on Tuesday evening's city council meeting, see Thursday's edition of the Neosho Daily News.