Reform of ethics codes on table
Leaders also are working out kinks in revamping rules on gift disclosure.
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.