The Phoenix City Council adopted on Tuesday what officials are saying is one of the "toughest ethics policies in the nation," a set of rules that guide how elected representatives conduct themselves in office.
Although some of the details are still being worked out, policy provisions will require elected officials to report gifts valued at more than $50, including meals paid for by lobbyists.
Council members directed city staff formulate a proposal that would outright ban most gifts, but allow for some exceptions. The policy also calls for the formation of an Ethics Commission comprised of judges to investigate alleged violations, and adds some teeth with penalties for violations.
Of course, the harshest penalty would be removing the offending official from office.
The overall ethics proposal made by Phoenix Mayor Greg Stanton was based on the recommendations of an Ethics Reform Task Force chaired by former Maricopa County Attorney Rick Romley.
The task force had recommended that the City Council take responsibility for voting on whether to cast out an elected official for serious breaches of city ethics.
It's ike the impeachment power of Congress.
But that provision was watered down. In an 8 to 1 vote, the council decided it would only set a recall election in motion and let voters decide the official's fate. Stanton, favoring the initial proposal, voted against the proposed change.
"I felt that having the tougher penalties would be a more effective approach, but this is still a huge step in the right direction," he says. "It's important for the people of Phoenix to have confidence that decisions are being made in the public's interests, not special interests."
Still, it seems ironic that instead of handling the situation themselves, the council members put the responsibility back on voters -- especially since we're presuming that, at the point a recall election would be taking place, the judges' panel already found convincing evidence that wrongdoing occurred.
For example, say a council member was busted for accepting Super Bowl tickets from a lobbyist in exchange for a favorable vote on a city project. The Ethics Commission judges investigate and agree that a violation had taken place.
If the council just calls for an election, doesn't that allow the errant official to solicit money from the same deep pockets of lobbyists or developers and corporate bigwigs to fight the recall?
Besides, state law already allows residents to collect signatures and force a recall election. The only change here appears to be the elimination of the signature-gathering process.
The teeth on this tough policy are starting to look pretty worn.
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Councilman Danny Valenzuela disagrees.
"I think (our decision) strengthens the policy by strengthening the participation and empowerment of the people who put us here in the first place," he says.
Read the Mayor Stanton's Ethics Reform Policy.