City ethics

There is little glory and almost no gold associated with service on the Durango City Council. Those who seek the position essentially are volunteers, and most councilors win their bread in careers beyond City Hall. Retirees and others outside the workforce notwithstanding, city councilors can and do consider issues with which a conflict of interest may exist. That potential should not disallow anyone predisposed to such conflicts from holding a City Council position, but it should spur the city to draft and adopt a comprehensive ethics code to protect residents and councilors from unduly influenced decisions.

The need is becoming clear as the City Council considers ordinances governing vacation rentals and accessory dwelling units – issues that are certainly of professional interest to the vacation rental property manager and real estate agent serving on the council. While the rules in question are not necessarily suspected of benefitting Keith Brant or Christina Rinderle specifically or personally, their professional roles warrant a discussion about whether their votes on the respective matters are appropriate. Lacking a codified ethics policy, the city’s discussion gets a bit more personal. It should instead begin and end with a basic understanding of what is appropriate. An ethics and conflict-of-interest code would provide that.

Brant, in particular, has served to illustrate the need for such a policy. As a vacation rental property manager – albeit for units solely outside city limits – he is uncomfortably close to the outcome of the city’s discussion about whether and how much to increase the number of vacation rental units allowed in certain neighborhoods. Add to that his violation of existing city policy on the matter – before and after he realized he was breaking vacation rental rules – and the function of an ethics code becomes quite clear.

Had one been in place, Brant and the council as a whole would have had pre-emptively and proactively scanned the situation for potential trouble. It surely would have eliminated the opportunity for Brant to claim ignorance of the law as an excuse for having violated it. That rarely is a compelling argument. From an elected official – and one whose business it is to understand the vacation rental landscape – it is an exceptionally tough sell.

Presumably, any ethic or conflict-of-interest policy the city adopts will at least reference the many models that other municipalities have enacted. The underlying premise of such codes is not to play gotcha or prevent elected officials from earning a living. According to Robert Wechsler, direct of research at City Ethics Inc., a nonprofit resource center for local governments, “The principal goal of a local government ethics program is to further the public’s trust that those who govern their communities are putting their personal interests aside in favor of the public interest. It is hard for a community to have social trust when its residents perceive officials using government to profit themselves and their friends and families.”

That is certainly in evidence in the city of Durango’s debate about ADUs and vacation rentals, and this will not be the last time the issue arises. The City Council, comprising an array of professionals with a broad spectrum of interests and expertise, considers a similarly wide-ranging set of policy matters. With an ethics and conflict-of-interest code, the City Council can assure itself and its constituents that those matters will be handled appropriately and with the public interest as the foremost concern.

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