City Council delays ethics overhaul, wants consensus before sending change to voters

Springfield City Council meeting on Monday, April 18, 2022.
Springfield City Council meeting on Monday, April 18, 2022.

A proposed ballot measure overhauling ethics provisions in Springfield's City Charter will not appear on April's ballot, after City Council moved to refer the issue to one of its committees. The staff-drafted change would adopt state government ethical standards — adding much needed clarity and flexibility but also allowing a limited financial dealings between the city and municipal employees or members of council.

Councilmembers generally agreed that the city's ethics requirements are difficult to interpret and need to be changed but disagreed on how the issue should be presented to voters. Council hopes to get the ballot language settled before seating new members in April. The issue could be sent to voters in an August referendum, some councilmembers suggested.

The city currently prohibits City Council members, staff, and other officials from having a "financial interest, direct or indirect, in any contract with the City, or be financially interested, directly or indirectly, in the sale to the City of any land, materials, supplies or services, except on behalf of the City as an officer or employee."

If someone in city government is found in violation of this directive, they immediately "forfeit" their office or employment.

According to city staff, this definition is too broad because "direct or indirect" financial interests are not defined in the charter and the lack of discretion in the consequences of a violation can create outsized punishment for innocent mistakes.

At council's first January meeting, City Manager Jason Gage said "indirect" is an "exceptionally broad and ambiguous term" that "creates tremendous confusion."

"If you're found guilty, it's an automatic forfeiture. But we know nothing's automatic, right? Because there still has to be determination as to whether there is a violation ...," Gage told council members.

Jason Gage, Springfield city manager
Jason Gage, Springfield city manager

"As easy as that might sound not to have an interest, we're talking about a spouse or son or so forth. From an employee perspective, we have over 20 departments spread out over just numerous locations across the community. And it's very possible."

Unable to agree on the solution and specific ballot language, council members tabled the issue until a special meeting Tuesday afternoon. There, Gage continued his argument about the flaws in the current system.

"It is one dollar to lose a 30-year career. One dollar not understanding the full impact ...," Gage said. "it's very aggressive. It's different than what you would typically find with cities and other forms of government. It's more strict, much more strict."

Gage offered an example of a city employee's child who might cut grass on a city property in the summer. Under the charter, their parent could lose their employment regardless of the amount paid, whether or not the parent was even aware of the family member's business with the city.

Councilman Andy Lear shared a more personal story. Only hours before his inauguration as a City Council member, Lear discovered that some business his wife did with the health department would constitute a conflict under the provision. Had that been discovered after his swearing in, Lear would have been required to resign "before my first day."

"What we have has proven to be unworkable. We have harmed people because of it …," Lear said. "That is an untenable position for someone to be in and we have employees who have been in that situation through no fault of their own. And I think that's doing more harm than having a reasonable, workable plan."

More:Here are 4 ballot measures the city plans to send to Springfield voters in April

Staff's proposed solution

City staff's proposed solution is to replace the current charter provision with the state's ethical requirements, a change that will require voter approval.

The state ethics provision says "no official or employee serving in an executive or administrative capacity shall perform a service for or sell, rent or lease property to the political subdivision in excess of $500 per transaction or $5,000 per year unless the award or contract is made after there is competitive bidding, and that official or employee provides the low bid for that particular service or property."

"Staff believes the standard under Missouri law sets a very high financial conflict of interest expectation, is much easier to interpret and apply, is more judicially tested, and generally accepted across the state," reads the city proposal council sent to committee.

According to City Attorney Rhonda Lewsader, other municipalities including Columbia have adopted the state standards without issue. She also noted council could strengthen the requirements via ordinance after the charter provision is passed.

Despite the flexibility such a standard might bring, the allowance of a $5,000 per year financial interest for elected officials and city employees is more lax than the current system. Gage said he believes the public could agree to the new standard.

"In state law, it does allow some kind of some limited amount of financial benefit, but it is attached to transparency and notices of bidding — those types of processes," Gage told councilmembers at their Tuesday meeting. "But I think the intent of that is to not create unintentionally a trap."

Council members voice concerns

Councilman Craig Hosmer was skeptical of the shift to a state standards, saying the change would leave the city's ethical requirements in the hands of the state legislature — a body he previously served in as a Democratic state representative.

"We're putting our trust in the state legislature, and I don't think that's necessarily well-founded," he said at last week's meeting.

"I think one of the reasons you put something in the charter is that it's always going to be there ... The legislature can't change it. The City Council can't change it. You put it in charter."

Councilwoman Monica Horton took issue with the wording of staff's proposed ballot language — arguing it could unintentionally make voters believe the state standards were equally or even more strict than the city's current charter provision.

The proposed language reads:

"Shall Section 19.16 of the Springfield City Charter be amended to prohibit any financial interest in a City of Springfield contract by City councilmembers, officers, board and commission members, or employees which violates state law, the Missouri constitution, or any ordinance of the City of Springfield?"

The unexplained phrase "which violates state law" could create confusion without additional context, according to Horton.

"It almost seems as though no matter where it's located in sentence, there still needs to be like some extra work done on the part of the voter to know what the state law says. And there's nowhere in the ballot language that indicates that 'yes, there will be financial interests allowable,'" she said at Tuesday's meeting, explaining she does not want residents to think the city is being deceptive to lower their ethical burdens.

Other members of the body felt comfortable moving forward with staff's proposed language.

"My position is I am fine with what proposal," Mayor Ken McClure said.

"I recognize the other discussions, so I'm not wedded to that (language). I do want to get eventually some clarity of at least the 'indirect' because that is very problematic ... I do think we have to work this out because it's causing problems. It's causing a lot of problems. And I don't think that's fair to the city, it's not fair to our employees and it's really not fair to council."

More:Springfield council dismisses Fisk ethics inquiry after months of delays

Council seeks united front before going to voters

The past several years have seen ethical concerns come to the forefront of city politics.

Former councilwoman Jan Fisk came under investigation in 2017 for not properly disclosing her financial ties while in office, which eventually led her in 2021 to pay a $100 fine ordered by a state agency. City Council conducted and dismissed an internal investigation into the case, which cost the city an estimated $117,000 in legal costs.

In 2016, the city spent a total of $96,389.66 on hearings and associated costs related to allegations that former Councilwoman Kristi Fulnecky was ineligible to take office due to unpaid business licenses.

Whether or not those specific instances would have been affected by the proposed charter change, they point to the high stakes of the ethics overhaul in the eyes of the public.

For this reason, Gage and city staff urged caution on the matter if City Council could not show unanimity in approving the measure for the April ballot.

"It's important because if you're not supportive of it, why would you expect the public to be?" Gage said.

Without such a consensus, council members opted to send the proposed measure to the body's Finance and Administration Committee to deliberate further. They hope to come to consensus before new council members sworn in this April, due to the practical difficulty of having new council members approve new ethical standards immediately after taking office.

"There is nothing magic about (sending the change to voters in) April," McClure said before council unanimously sent the proposed ballot measure to committee.

This article originally appeared on Springfield News-Leader: Springfield City Council delays sending ethics overhaul to voters