The Bernalillo County Commission has replaced its existing ethics ordinance with a new code of conduct that revamps how complaints are handled and strengthens the county’s process for addressing improper behavior by officials, employees, and volunteers. The Commission Commissioners approved the new code of conduct on a unanimous vote.
“We’ve been working for three years to get this right,” says Commission Vice Chair Maggie Hart Stebbins. In 2010, Hart Stebbins led the effort to revise the county’s ethics ordinance, which had not been updated in 25 years. “We now have a more efficient and reasonable code of conduct that establishes clear, consistent, and enforceable ethical standards for the county, brings us into compliance with state law, and helps assure taxpayers that county resources are being used appropriately.”
The new code includes several notable changes. Formal charges now must be submitted through a signed and sworn complaint that includes contact information for the individual filing the complaint. Complaints may be filed online via the county’s website.
The county will hire a compliance officer to provide confidential advice to individuals who are considering filing complaints, provide employee ethics training, manage the ethics complaints process, and ensure that the county complies with all applicable ethics laws. The compliance officer will provide administrative support to the ethics board and other county boards.
The compliance officer will receive all ethics complaints and forward them to a five-member review board whose members and alternatives will be appointed by county commissioners. The new review board will meet regularly and have a number of options for handling complaints: dismiss complaints that are not covered by the code of conduct; delay action on complaints during law enforcement or an independent contractor investigation; forward complaints to the county manager for handling as personnel matters; or move forward with evidentiary hearings to hear the allegations and determine if alleged behavior violates the code of conduct.
"The new code of conduct is a significant improvement over the current ethics ordinance," says Commissioner Wayne Johnson, co-sponsor of the legislation. "The new code includes a functioning citizen review board, a compliance officer who reports to the board, and eliminates costly frivolous investigations and short-cuts around the board."
If the review board finds that an employee or volunteer has violated the code of conduct, the case will be forwarded to the county manager for appropriate action.
If an elected official violates the code of conduct, the penalties range from a $1,000 fine, to a written censure. If the allegation against the elected official involves criminal activity, the complaint will be referred to the district attorney for investigation.
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The code of conduct takes effect in 30 days.