A new-look Dubuque City Council on Sunday signed off on a new code of conduct, with plans to later develop a code of ethics.
Council members met for a six-plus-hour special “governance” work session Sunday at Grand River Center facilitated by consultant Lyle Sumek, of Sumek Associates.
“I would like to know that my colleagues are obeying the laws and rules of the state and the city in meetings and closed sessions,” said at-large Council Member Ric Jones.
The comments come as Mayor Roy Buol pursues sanctions against former Council Member Jake Rios for sharing materials from closed-door council discussions of the city manager’s job performance.
Rios has said he felt it was his duty to reveal details of closed-session discussions about complaints leveled against City Manager Mike Van Milligen.
The newly adopted code of conduct will serve as “operating guidelines” for council members and as a framework for a code of ethics that includes enforcement provisions, Sumek said.
The code includes 12 pillars of conduct expected of council members in their interactions with each other, city staff and the public. They include provisions such as:
Respect others, their ideas and opposing points of view and comments.Communicate with all in an open, honest and direct manner.Actively listen before judging the comments of others, and criticize the ideas; not your colleague.Obey and follow city protocols, rules and the law.
Council members also debated at length whether to allow the use of electronic devices at the council table, particularly in closed sessions.
Rios recorded closed-door meetings about the city manager on his phone without the knowledge of others. The recordings then were provided to the media, including the Telegraph Herald.
“We know there were things recorded in closed session,” Buol said. “And we’ve got to do something to get a handle on that. Either periodic checks by the city attorney on electronics or something because it was out of hand, totally out of hand.”
Ward 4 Council Member Brad Cavanagh, who joined the council early this month, said, “I would like to see us start with just a place where we say, ‘We’re going to trust each other to follow the rules.’”
Council members ultimately agreed to ban electronic devices in closed-session meetings, but not during open session at the council dais.
“I don’t want us to shut ourselves off from the outside world to the point where nobody’s spouse can text you and say, ‘Hey, the kid’s sick. I need you to come home,’” Jones said.
Members also directed the city attorney, city manager and city clerk to compile information on best practices implemented by other communities related to a code of ethics and “house rules,” including the use of social media.
While each council member takes the same oath of office, Ward 3 Council Member Danny Sprank, who joined the council in November, had pushed for a code of ethics to establish a clear set of expectations and reminders when it comes to conducting city business.
“Having an enforcement tool makes a great deal of sense,” Ward 1 Council Member Brett Shaw said. “The other piece, though, that I would ask is there be some sort of burden of proof established.”
Sumek told council members, “You have a void right here, right now on this issue in your city on this issue and in the state level.”
State law says it is up to each council whether to adopt local ethics rules. However, aside from a public censure or reprimand, state law does not provide a strong enforcement provision to local governments for ethics violations by members, according to the Iowa League of Cities.
However, a city ethics violation could go toward proving “willful misconduct or maladministration in office” in a petition to the district court to remove an elected official from office under Iowa Code, according to a city spokesman.
“Here (is) our code of ethics, but here are the consequences for them so there’s teeth to them,” Sumek said. “And it isn’t based on distrust. It’s saying, ‘We need to set the standard, if we’re going to achieve the success and the image that we’re talking about here, and regain the trust of the community out there.’ This may be an important step going forward.”