Ethics should be taken seriously

The ethical behavior, or lack thereof, of elected officials should always be taken seriously.

Forest Park Mayor David Lockhart does raise a good point that could be akin to the fox being in charge of the hen house.

When a mayor and city council can hand pick a municipal ethics panel that is empowered to make a decision about whether or not to begin proceedings to censure or oust a sitting mayor or member of city council, there does seem to be a bit of conflict.

If an ethics panel could, in fact, remove an elected official from office — overriding the will of the voters — then that would seem to disenfranchise the entire electorate and also be a major concern.

However, that is not exactly how it works.

Checks and balances are in place.

An ethics panel, for example, merely makes determinations about whether allegations against a public official rise to the level of having a hearing officer hear the case.

An independent hearing officer, not beholding to city council or the ethics panel, is charged with conducting the hearing, receiving evidence and then presenting evidence to city council.

Largely, the hearing officer does not make recommendations about ouster or censure, but merely lays out the results of the evidentiary hearing for the council to take under consideration.

Then, the city council — bound by both city charter and state ethics laws — can make a financial determination about the future of the respective officials.

We agree with Lockhart that it is far from a perfect system.

However, the answer to a less than perfect process is not to simply do away with the only real local mechanism for policing the conduct of elected officials.

The problem with relying on the district attorney’s office and state law is that not every ethical breech rises to the level of criminality that would prompt the DA’s office to spend the resources to prosecute.

However, the public trust could still be compromised in cases the DA might not take up.

That is not to say that every allegation should be taken seriously.

In fact, a lot of accusations against public officials can be taken with a grain of salt.

However, with an ethics panel in place there is at least a process to help protect the public trust and hold public officials in check.

We would urge the mayor and city council to address these concerns by taking at look at:

• The make-up of the ethics panel.

• The training and level of expertise.

• The wording of the enacting ordinance.

• The length of the terms of appointments.

• The actual powers of the panel.

Addressing concerns, tweaking language, fixing issues with the process seems far more reasonable than throwing the baby out with the bathwater.

— Jim Zachary