Council Amends Code of Ethics to Address Campaign Contributions

Wednesday, December 2, 2015, 9:33 pm
By: 
Coleen Moyerbrailean

Above: Pat Wolff of the Tamarisk Neighborhood testifying during the public hearing last night.

Last night, East Lansing’s City Council unanimously approved a change to a portion of the City’s Code pertaining to Ethics. The change aims to make more transparent when someone with active financial business before Council has made a relatively recent campaign contribution of more than $100 to a seated Councilmember deliberating on the matter.

The changes were requested by Mayor Pro Tem Ruth Beier who told me today (in response to emailed questions) that she had “proposed a similar ordinance just after being elected two years ago” but found “little support among the then-sitting council members.” (Read more on that here and here.)

When asked if events that transpired during the recent City Council election played a role in her new request, Beier replied, “I would have reintroduced the ordinance even without the LRCC [Lansing Regional Chamber of Commerce] involvement” in the election.

Beier further explained that the “goal of the ordinance is simple – when someone comes before council seeking to do business with the city, any council person who has received more than $100 from that person will have to reveal that fact.”

Last night, City Attorney Tom Yeardon explained by way of introduction to the public hearing on the matter that “two aspects were asked to be included [by Mayor Pro Tem Beier] in our ethics code provisions. [The] first aspect would prohibit a council member from accepting or retaining campaign contributions that the council member is aware are offered to actually influence a vote or specific business before council.” The “second aspect of the ordinance is intended to require council members to disclose campaign contributions more than $100 from business entities within the past five years where that business entity has a matter pending before council” and “further defines a business entity within the confines of that.”

The changes proposed by Beier included, under the section dealing with “gratuities,” that “[n]o council member shall solicit, accept or retain a campaign contribution if the recipient believes that the contribution was made in the expectation or hope that it would influence the award of city business or specifically benefit the donor by way of a vote on a particular issue currently pending or anticipated to be pending before council.”

The second addition requested by Beier to be included in the ethics code stated that, in the interest of disclosure, a “council member who has accepted contributions of more than one hundred dollars ($100.00) from a business entity within the past five years must disclose that fact when a matter involving that business entity comes before Council.” The definition of “business entity” was clarified in the proposed ordinance changes to read “any commercial, industrial, or charitable establishment or organization in any form, whether organized for profit or not for profit, and shall include any owner, officer, representative or manager of a given business.”

When the floor was opened for public comment, citizen Pat Wolff (President of the Tamarisk Neighborhood Association but speaking only for himself) addressed the Council with concerns about the ordinance.

Wolff expressed his discomfort with lumping campaign contributions under “gratuities.” He argued that contributions are not gratuities or gifts and that viewing campaign contributions as gratuities implies “that receiving a contribution is in some sense a gift—a bribe, nearly, but not stated [as such].”

Wolff also took issue with the idea that candidates must refuse contributions which may be attempts to influence them. “All contributions are meant to influence,” he observed. He thought it better to require disclosure of all contributions and let the public decide “whether or not they feel one influence or another is there.”

With no other speakers, the public hearing portion ended. Council began their formal discussion.

Councilmember Shanna Draheim expressed her concern over the proposed changes and stated that she had asked City Attorney Yeadon to draft further changes. She requested that the definition of “business entity” be struck from the ordinance because “businesses (and all the other types of [organizations] identified here) are included under the existing definition of ‘person’. It just creates confusion to have two definitions.”

Draheim also took issue with the proposed addition meant to fall under “gratuities.” Her written comments on the amended document explained that “this language is really unnecessary because it bans something that is already illegal (taking money in exchange for a vote).” She suggested that if it was to be kept, then “it should be its own section because campaign contributions are not the same as personal gifts or gratuities.”

Council agreed to include a separate section entitled “Solicitation and receipt of political contributions.” The new wording reads: “No council member shall solicit, accept, receive, or retain a contribution to any committee described in the Michigan Campaign Finance Act, if the council member believes that the contribution is intended to influence her or him in the performance of his or her official duties, including but not limited to actions related to the award of city contracts or business and votes taken on an impending or anticipated matter before council.”

Lastly, Draheim requested that the additional language under “Full disclosure” be pulled out and given its own section. The new section states that a “council member must disclose campaign contributions received during the past five (5) years to his or her candidate committee in the following circumstances i) A person who is a named party in a matter before Council contributed a total of more than one hundred dollars ($100) to the committee in a single election  cycle; or ii) A person who was the owner, employee, manager, officer or representative of a named party before Council at the time the contribution was made, contributed a total of more…than one hundred dollars ($100.00) to the committee in a single election cycle. These disclosures must be made at the Council meeting(s) during which the named party is discussed and/or decided.”

Council voted unanimously to approve Draheim’s recommended amendments.

Beier stated in an email to me today that she “appreciated the amendments from Council member Draheim. I had been struggling to find the best way to word what I wanted to say, and her amendments did a better job than my original proposal.”

After approving the amendments, Council voted unanimously to approve the amended ordinance.

 

To view the part of the meeting where this was passed, and to see the ordinance, click here. Reminder: Citizens can speak at or write to City Council on any issue, including those not on the agenda. Email can be sent to Council by writing to council@cityofeastlansing.com.

 

 

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