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Ethics code tops council agenda

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Columbus officials, employees and appointees would be held to a high standard of conduct in order to maintain public confidence, according to a proposed ethics ordinance.

The City Council will consider a vote on the ordinance for the first time at its 5 p.m. Tuesday meeting at City Hall. The meeting time is earlier than usual, and few items are on the agenda, so that the meeting conflicts as little as possible with the North-East boys basketball game that night.

Mayor Kristen Brown and the council first discussed the idea of an ethics ordinance in March.

Brown said an ordinance will assure the public that city officials and employees are acting and working in the best interest of the public and not for personal gain. And it clearly explains for officials, employees and anyone doing business with the city what actions are permitted.

“The biggest objective for me is assuring the public that we are impartial,” the mayor said.

The ethics ordinance would apply equally to the mayor, police and firefighters, Brown added.

The city does not have an ethics ordinance, she said. Instead, it has a personnel policies handbook that Brown said excludes elected officers, police and firefighters, and is “ill defined” and lacks the “teeth” contained in the proposed ethics ordinance.

The ordinance, drafted by City Attorney Kelly Benjamin and reflecting input from city officials and employees, covers issues such as nepotism, acceptance of gifts and conflicts of interest, and provides protections for whistle blowers.

Accepting a gift worth more than $50 or accepting more than $250 worth of gifts in a year would not be permitted, according to the ordinance.

The proposed limit is intended to prohibit large items that could influence decisions but not be too restrictive, Brown said.

“We don’t (want it) that if I show up at a girls state basketball game and they give me a T-shirt I can’t accept it,” she said.

Brown said she already has turned down expensive gift offers, such as a club membership and tickets to sporting events.

A process for handling potential ethical violations and punishments — including censures, fines, suspensions and terminations — would run through an ethics commission, the mayor said.

The ethics commission would be composed of five city residents appointed by nonpolitical entities. The president of IUPUC, the board of directors of the United Way of Bartholomew County and the Columbus Area Chamber of Commerce, and the chief executive officer of the largest for-profit employer in the city would appoint one member each. Those four members would serve two-year terms, and they would choose a fifth member — not employed by them — to serve a one-year term.

Benjamin will work with Arlette Cooper-Tinsley, the city’s human resources director, on training city officials and employees on the ethics ordinance after it is approved.

Also at Tuesday’s meeting, the council will:

n Ratify and approve a land transfer between the city and Columbus Municipal Airport.

The properties — the former Bartholomew County REMC site at 801 Second St. and airport property on Deaver Road — were exchanged in 2010. However, a State Board of Accounts audit this year found that the exchange didn’t follow Indiana code, which specifies that the City Council must give approval of land sales.

Brown said a vote Tuesday would be to provide an official ending to the matter. Even if the council votes against the ordinance, the mayor said the matter is moot because the properties have exchanged hands and a new Bartholomew County REMC building now is at 1697 W. Deaver Road.

n Amend a city ordinance to establish a revenues fund for user fees charged by the Columbus Police Department.

Columbus Police Chief Jason Maddix said at the previous council meeting that some fees have been paid inadvertently into a continuing education fund, which is not allowed by Indiana code. So, the CPD Revenues Fund will be created for those fees.

Fees that will be paid into the revenues fund are: rental of the firearms range and/or training facility, spent shell casings, fingerprinting, criminal background checks, solicitation licenses, citizens firearms classes, teen driving class and audio/photographic evidence preparation.

Fees permitted to be paid into the continuing education fund include vehicle identification checks and state accident reports.

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