A major campaign plank in Columbus Mayor Kristen Brown’s successful 2011 mayoral run will come up for a vote Tuesday before the city council.
The need for an ethics ordinance was downplayed by the previous administration, but officials in other cities say it can serve a useful advisory purpose. In fact, before Fred Armstrong left office at the end of 2011, he laughed off the idea that a public official would change their vote after receiving a trinket from a company or organization.
Columbus City Attorney Kelly Benjamin, who helped draft the ordinance, agrees with Armstrong but says the city needs a document outlining what gifts may be pocketed and what might pose conflicts of interest.
“You really have very few complaints about it,” she says. “Even Indianapolis, in a year, under half a dozen complaints to them. More of the issues that come before their ethics commission will be advisory: ‘Can we do this, we ‘re not sure under the ordinance is this is allowed and we just want to make sure.’”
Benjamin surveyed six cities with similar ordinances, including Indianapolis, Schererville, Carmel and Avon. Indianapolis-Marion County Councilor Brian Mahern helped devise his council’s legislation and says prior to enacting it, it was tough to say what was or wasn’t a conflict of interest.
“I think there were instances before where some folks thought some situations were problems,” Mahern says. “Other folks, I think, had a difference of opinion. And so I think rather than have a debate about situations that came up, try to establish a policy that there was some consensus around.”
Benjamin says her city’s rules are still in the draft stage, meaning the Columbus City Council may not vote on them immediately. The current proposal prohibits public officials from receiving single gifts valued at more than $50 or taking more than $250 worth of combined gifts in a calendar year.