When our elected officials take their clothes off in private its one thing. But when they disrobe in public it’s entirely another, and I’m NOT talking about recently-resigned NY Congressman Chris Lee. I’m talking about Chris Montgomery, Mayor of the Iredell County Town of Mooresville who recently used the town’s email system to send racy messages to his mistress and to solicit a job from the developer of a gargantuan development project the town is regulating.
I admit that I do a pretty poor job of keeping up with Mooresville political scandals and was unaware of the latest until I received a call from Bruce Henderson, a reporter from the Charlotte Observer – coincidentally as I was driving into Charlotte – wanting my opinion. More specifically, did the recent 2009 legislation requiring local governments to adopt codes of ethics allow the Mooresville town board to take action against him?
Mr. Henderson, it turns out, had found an earlier blog post I had written on that topic. I told him the same thing I said in this blog a year ago – the new local government ethics laws have no more teeth than a chicken, although he sanitized it for me and it came out thus: “The new ethics law is grounded more in education than it is in enforcement.”
A good editor is hard to find.
If you came to the party late, the North Carolina General Assembly, already reeling from its own ethics scandals, adopted a two new statutes, codified as NCGS §§160A-86 and 87, that required all local governments to do two things. First, they had to adopt their own codes of ethics that required themselves to obey the law, to avoid impropriety, to faithfully perform the duties of office, and to comply with laws they already have to comply with regarding open meetings and public records. In other words, the codes of ethics really didn’t add any new duties.
But second and more importantly, each elected official is “required” to spend a certain number of hours each year taking courses in ethics. Courses where you learn the difference, for example, between public and private communications. There also are no teeth in this statute to enforce attendance at these meetings, but I know from experience that the vast majority of elected officials will sincerely and conscientiously attend these seminars and become better public servants for the effort.
When we elect men and women to handle the affairs of the governments we establish, we also draw lines. Lines that separate their public acts from their private acts. Lines that separate their money from our money. Lines that separate citizens’ property from their property.
Under current laws, about the most a city council can do is to censure or reprimand one of its members. In a vast majority of cases that is enough.
But the question the reporter wanted answered was whether there is an interim point – i.e. now – when the town’s board could remove him from office and nullify the previously expressed will of the citizens who elected him. Under the new legislation, the answer is no.
The final say over who leaves office generally should be in the hands of the same citizens who elected the official, and their method of “reprimand” is the ballot box. Whether Mooresville citizens will vote Mayor Montgomery out of office a) for having a mistress, or b) for being so stupid as to use a public computer to send his steamy messages, or c) for dancing in the fault lines of obvious conflicts of interest by soliciting work from a developer he could help is for Mooresville citizens, not its Board of Commissioners, to decide.
For, as Martin Sheen’s character said to President Andrew Shepherd (Michael Douglas) in one of my all time favorite films, The American President, “With all due respect, sir, the American people have a funny way of deciding on their own what is and what is not their business.”
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