The state-mandated city council ethics policy demands that council members reveal when they have a conflict of interest on a matter that comes before them, that they do so on the public record, describe “all such material facts” and recuse themselves. Failure to do so is “malfeasance in office” and the offender is to “forfeit his office or position.” City council member Justin Outling twice recused himself from council votes at a recent meeting without saying why as is required by the city’s ethics policy. Instead, he used his time to blame his lack of an ethical compass on the city attorney.
GREENSBORO, NC — According to the city council’s sate-mandated ethics policy, when a city council person has to recuse himself from a matter because of a conflict of interest, he is supposed to fully disclose all “material facts” of the conflict on the public record of the council meeting. Justin Outling recently recused himself from two city council votes in the same meeting without complying with the ethics policy requirement to describe his conflicts. Instead, Outling used his time to attack the city attorney while keeping the nature of his conflicts secret.
From the ethics policy:
“Disclosure of Interest in Legislative Action.“
“He/She shall publicly disclose on the record of Council, the nature and extent of such interest; including the full disclosure of all such material facts, and shall withdraw from any consideration of the matter, pursuant to Sec. 4.131 of the City Charter.”
Failing to disclose the nature and extent of a conflict is is in violation of the City Charter which says an official who does not comply is “guilty of malfeasance in office or position and shall forfeit his office or position.”
At the August 15th city council meeting, council member Justin Outling recused himself twice. On neither occasion did Outling bother to state the nature of his conflict as required by the ethics policy. Instead, he used his time to rail at the city attorney for giving what Outling described as bad advice on how to be ethical. Outling is himself an attorney who has attested with his signature to having completed state-mandated ethics training.
Here is what Outling had to say in asking to be recused on the fist matter, the approval of a contract with Level 3 Communications. He rambles on quite a bit. Read it for yourself, but I can save you some time: he doesn’t come close to describing his interest in Level 3 Communications or the facts of the conflict. He doesn’t even mention Level 3 Communications, directly or by inference, as required by the city’s ethics policy.
“I respectfully request to be recused with regard to item number three. I think a lot of us council members come to appreciate after we actually get on council we have two employees, and so that is the city manager and the city attorney. (pause) Most of us when we get on council we come to appreciate the fact that Greensboro city council really only has two employees, the city manager and the city attorney. And we rely on the advice and the guidance of both of those persons to a very high degree. And so on this particular item, and why I raise these points, is I’m respectfully requesting the support of council to recuse myself on this particular item. It’s come with great disappointment and tremendous frustration that I do so. Just to be clear, in the course of my time on council in the simple question of what constitutes a conflict of interest as interpreted by our city attorney, I’ve received conflicting and contrasting interpretations. Interpretations a year ago would be different than the interpretation two weeks ago. I, as a council member, rely on my own legal skill, my own training, my own judgements as to what’s ethical but I, like all of you, also have to rely on the city attorney and his advice that he provides and conflicting interpretations, answers to simple questions, serves no one well and calls into question the confidence that persons can have in both the city attorney as well as the city of Greensboro. Given those things, I would be quite frank even as an attorney I still, even to this day, do not know what the actual standard is and that gives me concern as a council member and I suggest that should give all of us concern as well. But, really out of abundance of caution and because questions have been raised and issues have been raised as to what is the proper standard I feel that I have no other choice, comporting with my ethics, my training, and my cautiousness and really my frustration with conflicting interpretations to ask that I be recused from this item and I respectfully request the support of city council in that connection.”
And that was it. Blah, blah, blah.
Lots of words but no description of the conflict, as required by the ethics policy. No description of the conflict which, failing to provide is “malfeasance in office or position” and shall require an official to “forfeit his office or position,” according to the City Charter.
Later in the meeting, Outling again asked to be recused from a vote granting a health care contract to United Healthcare, a process Outling had set in motion at the previous meeting without recusing himself — an action that, itself, lead to a complaint against Oulting with the North Carolina State Bar.
Here is what Outling said this time and, again, this time he fails to describe the nature of his interest in United Healthcare. He doesn’t even mention the company.
“Madame Mayor, with regard to this item, I respectfully request support of the council in connection with my desire to recuse myself from this item. The comments that I made moments ago with regard to item number three with regard to conflicting and inconsistent interpretations as to what does and does not constitute a conflict of interest, apply to that item as well as this item. I won’t belabor the point, and in the interest of time I won’t summarize those notions again, but again I request your support in allowing me to be recused.”
No description of the conflict, as required by the ethics policy.
In both of these matters, Outling had a chance to be ethical; to abide by the ethics requirements of the city charter and describe his conflicts. Instead, faced with a situation where the ethical demands are clearly spelled out, Outling chose not to be ethical and did not describe his conflicts of interest. Instead, Outling used the time he had to abide by the ethics policy to attacked the City Attorney as the cause of his lack of ethics.
In both of these matters, council member Tony Wilkins, without hesitation or question, moved that Outling be recused. All council members agreed without any asking Outling to conform to council’s ethics policy and reveal the nature of his conflict as required by council’s own ethics policy and the city charter.
It is up to council to enforce its ethics policy. At some point, council members, Outling included, need to accept responsibility for their unethical behavior. These are not people who just fell off the turnip truck. They are people who have years of experience in public office; people who, like Outling, have completed state-mandated ethics training. Playing dumb just doesn’t cut it.
The policy requirement that council members describe their conflicts or forfeit their office is up to council to uphold. Will city council act or will it allow one of their own to make a mockery of council’s “ethics”? Unfortunately, we know the answer.