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TBI probe sparks ethics reform
Jul 04, 2006 12:00 am
June 23, 2006 An investigation into a possible significant conflict of interest involving a top city official has renewed calls for ethics reform in Lebanon city government.
In fact, if the city lags on implementing a code of ethics, the state will do it for them, a local state legislators said Thursday.
State Rep. Susan Lynn, R-Mt. Juliet, explained local government ethics were part of House Bill 1, the sweeping ethics reform bill passed in a special session by the Tennessee General Assembly earlier this year.
"Should they fail to adopt a policy, then one will be assigned to them," Lynn said.
The Municipal Technical Advisory Service is expected to roll out its model ethics policy soon, and Lynn said it would encompass areas such as campaign financing, elections, conflicts of interest and local lobbying.
"Local people are lobbied too," Lynn said.
And it's not a moment too soon for some Lebanon city councilors who say the lack of a policy opens the door for conflicts of interest.
The call has been spurred by a probe surrounding mayoral assistant Debbie Jessen and her role as the real estate agent for Chestnut Ridge, a large residential real estate development on Bethlehem Road.
The Tennessee Bureau of Investigation and the district attorney's office are investigating to see if Jessen used her position in city hall to speed along the approval process for the development.
It quickly passed the Planning Commission, and was before city councilors less than two months after it was filed with the planning office. It has been deferred twice since then, largely because of drainage issues.
Other developments, city councilors noted Tuesday, usually take significantly longer.
Ward 1 Councilor Alex Buhler noted merely a perception of wrongdoing is enough to adopt policies preventing city employees from working second jobs, particularly those with companies who are mired in city processes.
"In these developments, new industries coming in here, I don't think they should be a part of that," Buhler said. "They may not be doing anything wrong, but it's perception, it looks like there is."
If these part-time jobs cannot be stopped, Ward 3 Councilor William Farmer said full disclosure of who is involved with each project should be mandatory.
"The first reading of the Chestnut Ridge was brought to us … I didn't know until after that reading that Ms. Jessen had an interest," Farmer said. "That is very questionable, and I believe unethical, for her to have stepped back and been behind the scenes having an interest in this."
But ultimately city employees should not be "double-dealing." Farmer said.
"You can't be a city employee and make a profit off the public monies," Farmer said.
Ward 2 Councilor Kevin Huddleston said he wanted to ensure "a level playing field" for those doing business with the city.
"Kind of like the deal you had with the planning commission," Huddleston said, apparently referring to the Chestnut Ridge. "It's taking four months for everybody else. How did this take 30 days?"
For his part, Fox said he was eager to eliminate "conflicts of interest."
"It should cover anything to where an office is used for personal benefit of an officeholder," Fox said. "It should just make sure that all behavior of government officials is ethical. … We can't all adopt a model put out by MTAS, so we need to take whatever MTAS comes up with … and add to it, not take away from it."
Ward 6 Councilor Kathy Warmath said the situation involving Jessen may provide "a silver lining" for reformists.
She said a code of ethics for city officials and employees where the message is set up front could help clear up confusion as to what is unethical behavior.
"What I'm talking about is … in our organization, we realize these things to be ethical concerns," Warmath said.
Buhler and Farmer said in one form or another they wanted to see protection for employees who pointed out problems in the city with one going as far to say department heads may be mincing words out of fear.
"I feel like since I've been on the Council, department heads can't really be straightforward with you," Buhler said. "They're afraid for their job … afraid of saying the wrong thing, and that's pretty evident this year.
"… One day they tell you this, one day they tell you something else. They need to be truthful and open with everybody and not have to worry about retaliation, the mayor or the City Council coming down on them because they told you the truth."
Staff Writer Jason Cox can be reached at 444-3952 ext. 45 or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.