It’s pretty fascinating the rhetoric flying around in Brentwood towards Mayor Bob Taylor by Councilmember Erick Stonebarger who hinted at potential ethics violations when there isn’t even a policy to point towards regarding the usage of a city vehicle to prop up campaign signs. The outcome of the discussion led to a committee being formed to clarify the legality and ethics regarding elected officials using city equipment.
This call for an ethics policy and punishment to be looked at by the council stems from the mayor using a city vehicle to prop up campaign signs during the Oct. 27 Hometown Halloween event. The “situation” was quickly handled in a matter of minutes and is for whatever reason now being brought up months later.
To get really simple before getting into the details, this comes down to Councilman Stonebarger having an opinion with nothing to stand on—and that is frustrating to him because he has nothing to fall back on.
I could come out and say those signs were not technically campaign sighs because it doesn’t say “Vote for Bob Taylor for Mayor” or “Bob Taylor for Mayor”. Rather, it just looks like “mayor signs” to me instead of campaign signs. Do I believe that, of course not, but it’s all perception which is why without a policy to fall back on, accusations of ethics violations during a public meeting are essentially a form of slander.
The debate can be held, but not directed at Mayor Taylor if there was no policy in place.
We don’t have to like what Mayor Taylor did because I sure don’t, but the reality is nothing wrong happened because there is no policy in place that states his actions were wrong. There is no recourse outlined and no protocol to report potential violations.
Yes, that sounds ridiculous but its reality in Brentwoods case. So this “violation” rhetoric needs to stop and the council simply move forward.
Look, I am not going to defend the Mayor because I do not even like what he did. It’s actually pretty ridiculous and had a policy been in place, then sure, nail him. But with no city code that is clear, he did nothing wrong and he should stop being made an example out of in order to create future policy after a 30-minute discussion.
Rather than being overly dramatic about one’s opinion and bringing up the incident multiple times in a half hour discussion which allowed the newspapers to have a field day and embarrass the city, the council could have simply created its committee, made the recommendations in the future, and a policy and even a policy on punishments could be created in a month or two.
That discussion and approval to start that process could have been done in less than 5-minutes.
Instead, we get to listen to Stonebarger take a shot at the mayor when the Staff Report explained it very well there was no clear policy. Either Stonebarger didn’t read it, forgot what was stated or just didn’t care as he wanted to make an example out of the mayor.
“We had the circumstance come up in the last election. I don’t know if it’s a violation of city policy using a city vehicle during a campaign. I think we should ask that question to see if they have that policy and if we have this policy was it violated? Does it violate campaign finance? I don’t know. Election law? I don’t know! Ethics training certificates we get? I don’t know. Does it violate common sense and ethics are involved in that,” said Stonebarger.
Let me break this down further, he’s had since Oct. 27 to seek answers on whether or not this was a violation. Two things occurred, he either didn’t research or he did not get the answer he liked so the next best thing is to create a policy going forward.
Fine, move forward with a policy, I agree with you, but the rhetoric was wrong.
Moving on, after some back and forth discussion with staff, Stonebarger then brings up the incident a second time with the phrase “violation” included.
“We had what I think is a violation in the November election of using city equipment to campaign with how do we move forward with that. It’s obvious our current policies are inadequate of how to move forward with that,” said Stonebarger.
Stonebarger is still stating the potential violation when staff just admitted the policy is unclear. The use of the term violation should have stopped right then and there. To make matters worse, staff admitted they hadn’t looked into what other cities do in this circumstance.
So while the meeting did not get into specifics as they danced around what transpired, the Brentwood Press did give specifics which highlighted just how dull this example being used to create policy really is.
The Brentwood Press reported that when Paul Eldredge informed the Mayor of “the problem” which was cleaned up in a matter of minutes. Stonebarger says its wrong regardless what rules the city did or did not establish—well I say he is wrong. Again, he has an opinion, but it doesn’t make his opinion the right opinion. The rules (city code or state law) decide what is right and wrong.
Rick Lemyre quoted Stonebarger stating, “At the very least it’s a violation of common sense,” Stonebarger said Wednesday. “If you put that picture (of the car with campaign signs) in front of 100 people, 99 will say it’s wrong.”
Quite frankly, I don’t care and policy doesn’t care what 99-people say is wrong, if there is no policy for Brentwood to fall back on, it’s not wrong no matter how much we don’t like the Mayors actions from that October day!
Going back to the meeting, Stonebarger brings up the incident yet a third time admitting the incident was frustrating to all and put the city in a bad position.
“What drove this agenda item was a member of this governing body utilizing equipment for campaigning and its really frustrating because it put all of our staff in a terrible position, it put out police in a terrible position and everyone at the event in a terrible position and it doesn’t seem like we have a good way to resolve it, to identity it, and to punish it and I think you need to have those boundaries in place to hold people accountable for going out of bounds,” said Stonebarger.
Well I agree with him, it likely was frustrating and did put the city in a bad position, however, learn from it instead of complaining. Figure out exactly what he wants fixed going forward and what type of punishment would be sufficient for this type of incident—it should be noted that the public never was presented with a solution, only complaining.
Vice Mayor Joel Bryant chimed in about wanting to talk about going forward.
“I want to make clear what we are doing with issues of policy, this is a policy that going forward we need to have something in place to protect us as a council moving forward. Something that has clear policies and procedures,” said Bryant. He added, “I think that any governing body that does not have an intact ethics policy is simply asking for real problems and I would highly suggest that we as a council enact some sort of ethics policy.”
Steve Barr added, “We need to adopt some type of ethics whether it’s already in place or we develop our own…. I’d like to see us higher than the minimum standard.”
Ultimately, Stonebarger and Bryant volunteered to be appointed to the subcommittee to look at the council use of city equipment and return to the full council with recommendations—it will likely be expanded in the future for a council/mayor ethics policy. Given both Stonebargers and Bryan’ts opinions, a good policy will likley be crafted to protect the future councils.
One name that comes up when I discussed the Brentwood discussion with a friend was Gayle Bishop—she is an ex-Contra Costa County Supervisor accused of which included allegations her staff did campaign and legal work for her on county time. In a 1997 article, the jury concluded she abused the office then lied. She was ordered to 3-years in prison but through the appeal system, she was sentenced to six months in jail and served 19 days in 2001, plus a period of home detention.
Now does Taylor’s incident go that far? Of course not, but its not for the council to police themselves, that is for the voters and state law to do the policing. This policing of themselves will be very hard to do so this pandering to voters for political gain needs to stop.
Create the policy, but in the meantime stop throwing out accusations and phony rhetoric in the process. I would ask the Brentwood Council to change its rhetoric going forward and leave Mayor Taylor’s incident alone during the discussion once Stonebarger issues a public apology to the Mayor.
Ethically speaking of course, it’s the right thing to do.
BACKGROUND (Via Staff Report)
Currently there are two City Council/Administrative policies regarding the Mayor and City Council’s (collectively, “City Council”) use of City equipment: 10-9 (Use of Vehicles and Related Equipment) and No. 10-10 (Information Systems and Communications). In general, these two policies outline the City Council’s allowable usage of city equipment, ranging from vehicles to electronic devices.
Staff understands that there may be a desire to modify one or both of these policies to reasonably preclude the use of certain equipment by City Council members. For example, one possible outcome could be that you determine that it is unnecessary for City Council members to use any City vehicles and could direct staff to amend the Use of Vehicles and Related Equipment Policy accordingly. In the alternative, there may be a desire to further clarify when City laptops could be used and similar revisions could be made to the Information Systems and Communications’ Policy.
Regarding penalties for violations, although these policies contain them for City employee violations, they are silent as to what happens for City Council Member violations. By way of example, the Vehicle/Equipment Use Policy provides that “any employee found to have violated this Policy may be subject to formal disciplinary action up to and including termination from City employment.” The Information Systems and Communications Policy similarly states that “any employee found to have violated this policy may be subject to formal disciplinary action up to and including termination from City employment” and then goes into greater detail on penalties, depending on the nature of the violation.
Although there are other policies that apply to City Council Members, (Brown Act, Attendance at Public Meetings, Nepotism and Fraternization, Unlawful Discrimination and Harassment; Fraud; Confidential, Privileged and Protected Information; Travel/Meetings; Gifts; and Meeting Rules and Procedures); only the Meeting Rules and Procedures Policy contains a clear penalty provision for its violation by City Council Members.
Section 35 of the City Council Meeting Rules and Procedures Policy reads as follows:
“… City Council members who intentionally and repeatedly do not follow proper conduct may be reprimanded or formally censured by the Council, lose committee assignments (both within the City of Brentwood or with inter-governmental agencies) or have official travel restricted. Serious infractions of the Code of Ethics or Code of Conduct could lead to other sanctions as deemed appropriate by Council.”
As currently written, the above sanctions appear only to apply to violations of Policy No. 110-1 and not to the remainder of the City Council’s policies. In addition, it should be noted that currently the City does not have either a Code of Ethics or a Code of Conduct that are referenced in Section 35. Staff believes that these references were inadvertently retained from another city’s policy when this one was originally adopted in Brentwood in 2001.
Should the City Council wish to include penalty provisions for their violation of applicable City policies, there are at least two ways to move forward.
- Amend each policy to include penalty provisions that apply to the City Council
- Amend section 35 of the Meeting Rules and Procedures Policy so that it applies to other City policies.
Although the first option would take more time and staff resources to implement, it would have the advantage of allowing penalties to be better tailored to a specific policy. The second option could be enacted relatively quickly, but may not be entirely appropriate for a particular policy.
If the Council desires to expedite the process, but is concerned about the applicability of certain penalties to a given policy, you may wish to consider first amending section 35 of the Meetings Rules and Procedures Policy and then, as individual policies are brought forward for review, consider whether they should contain more specific penalty provisions.
If the Council directs staff to amend Council/Administrative policies regarding Council use of City equipment and/or to include penalty provisions for their violation, there will be minor staff costs associated with the drafting of the revisions and related staff report.
Contra Costa Times: Brentwood leaders to examine use of city equipment by public officials
Brentwood Press: Council to Consider Ethics Policy