Re­form of ethics codes on ta­ble

Lead­ers also are work­ing out kinks in re­vamp­ing rules on gift dis­clo­sure.

The Denver Post - - FRONT PAGE - By Jon Mur­ray

Den­ver city lead­ers are mov­ing closer to adopt­ing ethics-code re­forms and re­vamp­ing lob­by­ist- and gift-dis­clo­sure rules that will make it eas­ier for cit­i­zens to see who’s woo­ing of­fi­cials with meals and tick­ets.

Be­sides dis­cus­sion Tues­day of a new dol­lar limit on event tick­ets from each donor with a city in­ter­est, the most sig­nif­i­cant pro­posed changes also may be the sim­plest: Make elected and ap­pointed of­fi­cials’ gift dis­clo­sures avail­able on­line, and do it more of­ten — ev­ery six months in­stead of an­nu­ally.

Lob­by­ists’ bi­monthly re­ports of spend­ing on city lob­by­ing ac­tiv­i­ties also would be up­loaded to the city’s web­site by the clerk and recorder’s of­fice.

The City Coun­cil, which still is de­bat­ing some de­tails and work­ing out kinks, heard the fi­nan­cial dis­clo­sure and lob­by­ing pro­pos­als on first read­ing Mon­day night. Those are set for fi­nal votes Jan. 3.

Coun­cil­man Kevin Flynn’s more com­pli­cated pro­posal to amend the Code of Ethics in sev­eral key ways is mov­ing more slowly but could make it to the coun­cil floor late next month. Sev­eral coun­cil mem­bers still have hangups on de­tails that in­clude whether Flynn’s pro­posed $300 an­nual limit — on tick­ets or event ad­mis­sions from each donor with an in­ter­est in city gov­ern­ment — is too low.

Ethics watch­ers who have pressed for even more re­forms to city con­duct and dis­clo­sure rules for of­fi­cials and em­ploy­ees say the pro­pos­als are headed in the right di­rec­tion.

When it comes to mak­ing it easy for res­i­dents to learn about such gifts, the city long has got­ten low marks. Peo­ple must visit the clerk and recorder’s of­fice dur­ing busi­ness hours and pay 25 cents a page for copies of of­fi­cials’ fi­nan­cial dis­clo­sure re­ports. With min­i­mal de­tail re­quired, of­fi­cials have dis­closed vary­ing lev­els of de­tail, as The Den­ver Post re­ported in 2015.

And those re­ports were re­quired just once a year, in early Au­gust. That is seven months af­ter the end of the re­port­ing pe­riod, ren­der­ing the in­for­ma­tion stale by then.

Un­der the dis­clo­sure pro­posal, of­fi­cials would file an an­nual fi­nan­cial dis­clo­sure state­ment cov­er­ing their in­ter­ests by Jan. 31 each year, with sep­a­rate gift dis­clo­sures due by Jan. 31 and July 31.

As part of the changes, coun­cil mem­bers are seek­ing to nar­row the scope of gifts that need to be re­ported to only those com­ing from peo­ple or busi­nesses who stand to ben­e­fit from di­rect of­fi­cial de­ci­sion­mak­ing by of­fi­cials or city em­ploy­ees, as cov­ered by Flynn’s pro­posed lim­its in the ethics code. That in­cludes con­tract awards and some coun­cil votes.

“I think, in gen­eral, the bill is go­ing in the right di­rec­tion for the pub­lic in­ter­est,” said Peg Perl, se­nior coun­sel for Colorado Ethics Watch. “What the peo­ple want to know is when you’re ac­cept­ing things that are re­lated to your of­fi­cial du­ties and that are com­ing be­cause you have some kind of di­rect ac­tion or author­ity over what the donor is seek­ing.”

Af­ter a com­mit­tee ear­lier agreed to in­crease the ex­ist­ing gift-re­port­ing thresh­old from $25 to $50, Coun­cil­woman Robin Kniech says she plans to lobby col­leagues be­fore the fi­nal vote for an amend­ment that drops the min­i­mum to $0.

That will en­sure that peo­ple who view gift dis­clo­sures can add up whether of­fi­cials are stay­ing within the lim­its for such gifts, she said.

The coun­cil’s Fi­nance and Gover­nance Com­mit­tee dis­cussed Flynn’s ethics code pro­posal Tues­day, the third time in re­cent weeks. It is set to re­sume the dis­cus­sion, and pos­si­bly vote to ad­vance the mea­sure, on Jan. 17.

“The bot­tom line is that we’re try­ing to in­crease pub­lic con­fi­dence in the way that we con­duct busi­ness,” Flynn said af­ter Tues­day’s meet­ing. “And cur­rently, the way the code is writ­ten, I don’t be­lieve that it goes far enough. I be­lieve that there needs to be a dol­lar limit on the things that we ac­cept from peo­ple who do busi­ness with the city.”

Flynn ini­tially pro­posed ap­ply­ing the $300 gift cap to both meals and event tick­ets. He ul­ti­mately de­cided on a sep­a­rate limit of four meals each year from ev­ery donor with a city in­ter­est, since he says those typ­i­cally cost less than tick­ets.

The ethics code al­ready bars other types of gifts from fi­nan­cially in­ter­ested givers, while al­low­ing up to four meals or tick­ets in a year from each. Crit­ics have ar­gued that al­lows for po­ten­tially huge ex­penses to be show­ered on city em­ploy­ees and of­fi­cials.

The trio of coun­cil pro­pos­als has picked up mo­men­tum af­ter more than two years of con­sid­er­a­tion, start­ing with dis­cus­sions by the ap­pointed Board of Ethics. One im­pe­tus was the use of in­di­rect do­na­tions from cur­rent and for­mer city con­trac­tors to fund Mayor Michael Han­cock’s Su­per Bowl trip in 2014.

Early this year, ad­min­is­tra­tion of­fi­cials, coun­cil mem­bers and ethics ad­vo­cates met in a work­ing group, re­sult­ing in Flynn’s bill. And Clerk and Recorder Debra John­son pre­pared the pro­pos­als on gift- and lob­by­ing-dis­clo­sure changes.

Ul­ti­mately, those in­volved in the talks didn’t agree on a way to close the loop­hole that al­lowed for the ar­range­ment to pay for Han­cock’s 2014 trip. But this year, Han­cock used city money to watch the Bron­cos’ re­turn to the Su­per Bowl.

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