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NEWS of city firefighters being recalled to Columbus in the midst of a visit to a firetruck factory in Florida earlier this summer certainly proved embarrassing for the department, especially since the trip, which was paid for by the manufacturer, took place a few weeks after the City Council had approved ethics rules prohibiting the acceptance of such gifts.
Mayor Kristen Brown took immediate and extraordinary action when she learned of the situation, recalling the officers to Columbus in the midst of their fact-finding visit to the manufacturer. She also directed that the city pay $1,980 to cover the costs of the return airline tickets.
None of the six firefighters involved was disciplined for the breach of policy, but city department heads have gone through additional training to educate them on the new rules. Fire Chief Dave Allmon took responsibility for authorizing the travel, explaining that he viewed the trip by the committee charged with preparing bid specifications for the purchase of two new firetrucks as having an educational value.
However, he also acknowledged that he didn’t make the connection that having a vendor pay for travel expenses would be a violation of the gift policy.
In one respect, the incident can be seen as a valuable object lesson for all municipal managers and employees, putting an exclamation point behind the section that prohibits the acceptance of any gift of more than $50 a year from any company seeking to do business with the city.
Free fact-finding trips funded by private businesses like the one taken by the selection committee were quite common in years past, but as more local governments have adopted or tightened ethics codes the practice has been changed.
The visits to manufacturing facilities could, indeed, provide useful information, but in this instance, the knowledge gained can be tarnished by the perception that members of the committee might have been swayed by the company’s hospitality.
It is appropriate that no disciplinary action was taken against any member of the committee, especially in light of the fact that the City Council did not include penalties for ethics violations in the original resolution.
As Council President Ryan Brand observed, “Education is a key component” in the resolution.
In the future it is important that all city employees be reminded of what is acceptable and what is not under the ethics policy.
The embarrassment caused by this episode can serve as a valuable learning tool.
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