A new Dubuque City Council member said he intends to push for new ethics rules in the wake of the public disclosure of confidential, closed-session information.
Ward 3 Council Member Danny Sprank told the Telegraph Herald that he intends to urge colleagues to adopt a code of ethics modeled after those required of state and federal lawmakers.
While each council member takes the same oath of office, pledging to discharge the duties of the office as required by law, a code of ethics would establish a clear set of expectations “and reminders and framework” when it comes to conducting city business, said Sprank, who joined the council in November.
The Iowa Senate Code of Ethics, which Sprank said he intends to use as a model, bars members from using or disclosing confidential information “in order to further the senator’s own economic or other interests or those of any other person.” The Iowa House of Representatives has a nearly identical prohibition.
“Our actions have ramifications, and we have to play by a set of rules that we all agree to,” Sprank said.
City Council members are scheduled to meet Jan. 26 for a special “governance” work session facilitated by consultant Lyle Sumek, of Sumek Associates.
Sprank said he intends to bring up the topic of adopting a code of ethics for council members during the work session.
The move comes 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.
In November, Buol asked Dubuque County’s county attorney, C.J. May III, to investigate whether Rios should be removed from office or criminally charged. Rios’ term has since expired.
May said this week that the matter remains under investigation.
Matters discussed in closed session are confidential by statute and only can be released by court order, per Iowa law.
However, “there are no sanctions or remedies ... for public disclosure of information from a closed session,” the Iowa Public Information Board wrote in response to Buol’s request for an opinion.
Based on past Iowa court rulings, the IPIB in its proposed advisory opinion also states it is not a violation of Iowa law “for public disclosure of information from a closed session.”
Rios has said he felt it was his “duty as a public servant to whistleblow what had gone on,” relating to City Manager Mike Van Milligen and complaints of harassment and discrimination within City Hall by current and former city staff.
However, Buol argues Iowa’s whistleblower statute “does not apply if the disclosure of the information is prohibited by statute.”
Alan Kemp, executive director of Iowa League of Cities, said it is up to each council whether to adopt local ethics rules and could not say how many have done so in Iowa.
“It’s probably not a bad idea so everyone is on the same page as to their expectations ... while understanding it has some limitations,” Kemp said.
Aside from a public censure or reprimand, state law does not provide “a strong enforcement provision” to local governments for ethics violations by members, Kemp said.
“The truth is, if you’re on city council, you’re an elected city official and there are very few ways to penalize an elected city official,” he said. “And, as you can imagine, it’s not easy to remove an elected city official from office.”
City of Dubuque spokesman Randy Gehl, though, said 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.
Kemp said he could not recall a city official who has been removed from office in his roughly 20-year career.
“Sometimes, it’s just enough to have an understanding of a governing body’s shared values and expectations, and that alone can make them more effective,” he added.
A majority of Dubuque council members said they are supportive of such a discussion.
While not seeing “any inherent issues that (a code of ethics would) currently resolve,” Council Member Brett Shaw said he is “open to it.”
Newly seated Council Members Laura Roussell and Brad Cavanagh also said they are in favor of discussing new ethics rules.
“If there’s another way we can demonstrate our commitment to open governance and doing things the right way, I will certainly be open to that conversation,” Roussell said.
Cavanagh added: “Laws and ethics are two different things in a lot of ways. ... I’m totally open to having a discussion about how we’re going to follow both.”