Aurora City Council ethics proposal draws complaints about being rushed, nontransparent

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AURORA | An ethics ordinance will get a vote at the next Aurora City Council meeting, but some city lawmakers think the proposed ordinance — aimed at establishing a set of ethical rules for city council members — was rushed and without scrutiny.

The ordinance headed to the next meeting after getting approval from a majority of council members at Monday’s study session applies only to council members and dictates that a retired judge review ethical complaints.

The proposal addresses issues such as donations and gifts, but it doesn’t require disclosure of potential conflicts of interest by the members of council, an issue that has drawn attention in the past year with some city lawmakers.

Those are some major differences between a separate ethics ordinance, which Councilwoman Nicole Johnston had presented to the Federal, State and Intergovernmental policy committee last month. Johnston said she planned to present that ordinance to another committee, the Management and Finance committee, but she decided to present it next month.

In that time council members Charlie Richardson and Marsha Berzins presented their own measure, containing different provisions than Johnston’s, during the “miscellaneous” portion of the meeting. Information about the ordinance was neither on the agenda nor included in the meeting’s back-up material.

“I don’t need ownership over an ethics ordinance, but we do need collaboration… to have something rushed through, especially on ethics, is inappropriate in my opinion,” Johnston said during the Monday study session.

Her version of the ethics ordinance, which she was working on with Councilwoman Angela Lawson, would apply to council members, city employees and people who serve on boards and commissions. It would also set a gift limit of $75 — the version from Berzins and Richardson requires reporting gifts over $59 — and tasking one retired judge with reviewing ethics complaints.

Johnston said it was modeled after Colorado’s Amendment 41, which passed in 2006 with nearly 63 percent of voters’ approval. It outlines ethical standards for state employees and created the Colorado Independent Ethics Commission.

Johnston and council member Crystal Murillo both referenced a redlined version of Johnston’s proposal that had apparently been edited into Berzin and Richardson’s ethics ordinance.

Richardson said during the meeting he’s open to amendments on his version. Berzins said she’d be open to allowing a panel of retired judges to oversee ethics complaints.

The item was added to the already full agenda last minute.

Mayor Bob LeGare, who runs the meeting, said in an email to council members obtained by the Sentinel he wasn’t even sure the council would have enough time in the meeting to discuss the proposal.

The majority of council members ultimately decided to discuss the ethics code instead of finishing reviewing revised council rules, which have spanned two recent study sessions.

Council member Allison Hiltz wasn’t present at the study session but told the Sentinel an ethics code is “too important to be rushing through.”

“I understand why there (are) two and different types, but we haven’t even made it through the rules yet,” she said. “Let’s go through the process as it was planned.”

Berzins called for the rules committee to convene earlier this year. It does so every couple of years to update council rules as necessary.

Richardson said the effort to create an ethics ordinance had been ongoing for sometime and he wanted to push it to a decision.

While technically allowed, Johnston said she wouldn’t force her ordinance to a regular city council meeting. She said wanted more stakeholders involved in reviewing the ethics code and wouldn’t have time to do that before the version from Berzins and Richardson is introduced.