Macomb County Drafts Ethics Ordinance

By Chad Selweski
Macomb Daily Staff Writer

Published: Wednesday, November 02, 2011

Macomb County officials on Tuesday nearly wrapped up work on a new ethics ordinance that will lay down strict rules on county elected officials, department heads and employees for conflicts of interest, nepotism and graft.

The Board of Commissioners, in a marathon 6-hour session, tentatively adopted a 10-page policy that is required by the voter-approved county charter. The most significant change

from current practices is a requirement that officials disclose their income, business partnerships and real estate holdings if they intertwine with any contracts or purchases by the county.

“This document will create a culture of transparency and accountability in this county,” said Commissioner Fred Miller, the Mount Clemens Democrat who chaired a special committee that hammered out the details. “This … document sets the bar high, appropriately high.”

The disclosure statement must indicate any financial or personal relationship which could create the perception that an official is profiting from county business.

Officials must provide the sources of any outside income over $5,000 annually and any real estate holdings within Macomb County of the official or his immediate family. They must reveal any financial interest, including those of family members, for any company or contractor who has done business with the county in the past two years.

The disclosure requirement applies to countywide elected officials, commissioners, candidates for countywide office or the Board of Commissioners, the county executive’s staff and department heads.

In addition, vendors who express an interest in doing business with the county will be required to provide a disclosure statement that indicates no conflicts, nepotism or favoritism.

The ordinance also provides a very broad definition of “gifts and gratuities” that officials and employees are barred from receiving if there are any political connections involved or ties to vendors that do business with the county or have expressed an interest in landing a contract.

The vote in favor of the ordinance by the commissioners was 7-2, with four commissioners absent. Numerous amendments, mostly making minor changes, were adopted during the long session. The commissioners had previously sought input from the County Executive’s Office and the Prosecutor’s Office and their independent counsel, Andy Richner.

Assistant County Executive Al Lorenzo said he expects the Hackel administration to pursue additional amendments in the coming days after their legal advisers raised several red flags about the ordinance.

Once the document receives final approval, the next step is for County Executive Mark Hackel to appoint the five members of a Board of Ethics, subject to board confirmation.

The board, which will meet in public, must consist of five members with no ties to county government or the local political parties’ apparatus. They will serve 5-year terms with no pay. Family members of officials or employees are also banned from serving.

The ordinance will apply to countywide elected officials, elected commissioners, department heads, appointees and regular employees.

The circuit court judges and Prosecutor Eric Smith and his staff are exempt from the ethics rules because, by state law, they have separate standards established that apply to them. Commissioners said those employees would still be expected to live up to the county regulations.

Much of the material covered in the new ordinance was mandated by the charter, which provided detailed requirements for an ethics policy and a panel to enforce the rules. The 2008-09 Macomb County Charter Commission placed such an emphasis on ethics that they created a separate committee to establish a new set of clean-government expectations.

On Tuesday, some commissioners made reference to the widening scandal in Wayne County regarding severance pay as an example of what they hope to avoid. Miller pointed out that Wayne County has no ethics ordinance.

Violations of the ethics ordinance will result in a fine up to $500 by the Board of Ethics and disciplinary action ranging from censure to dismissal. Some types of misconduct could also lead to an outside criminal investigation that might lead to felony or misdemeanor charges.

Macomb’s previous ethics policy was widely ignored and the ethics enforcement committee, consisting of commissioners, met only twice in five years.

This time around, the commissioners got a late start on creating the charter-mandated ethics ordinance, holding their first meeting in July and not engaging in any substantive discussions until August. The charter deadline is Dec. 31.

The ordinance approval on Tuesday was granted by the Board Operations Committee, which consists of all 13 commissioners. The document must receive final approval at the full board meeting on Nov. 10.