Alamogordo City Commission to vote on Consideration of Code of Conduct for Elected & Appointed Representatives

Image Mayor Payne lead’s dialog for Transparency in Government with a Code of Conduct with Teeth

Regardless of whether an organization is legally mandated to have a code of conduct (as all public companies are), every organization, public, private, non-profit or government institution each should have one. A code has value as both an internal guideline and an external statement of values and commitments.

At the corporate level a very visible application of a company use of their code of conduct happened this year with CNN and the firing of its CEO.

In February 2022, CNN president Jeff Zucker was forced to resign when the network discovered he had been hiding a romantic relationship with another employee. While office romances are not prohibited at CNN, employees are required to disclose them.

Though this incident ousted a top figure in the company, CNN did the right thing by enforcing their policy as soon as they discovered an infraction.

An organization’s code of conduct should be clear in both its rules and consequences, as well as applied consistently, regardless of the person’s position. 

A strong code of conduct can also reduce for a company or a government institutions risk of embarrassing public scandals and protect your employees from harm, lawsuits or issues damaging to the reputation of the institution in question.

For example, a zero-tolerance approach to harassment could deter an executive or a commissioner from engaging in damaging situations with peers, subordinates, the public, lobbyist or staff. Or explaining an institutions conflict of interest policy might keep a staff member, elected or appointed board member, or other staff from unwittingly misrepresenting the public trust or failing to disclose a relationship that could raise questions of bias and erode public trust of partisanship or self-interest.

Encouraging an ethical culture with a code of conduct creates a safer, more productive and professional environment for all involved while helping to prevent costly legal incidents. It is fact that a standard of conduct generally are a central tenet and foundation for the company’s integrity management program.

This Tuesday the Alamogordo City Commission will again review the steps of a Code of Conduct and vote on implementing a Code of Conduct for the City Commission. Most cities in New Mexico have either adopted or are in the process of review and adoption of a Code of Conduct.

The last City Commission meeting hosted dialog around a code of Conduct. Mayor Susan Payne took the lead and addressed the issue of a failed code of conduct in the past, and the need for one that is fair, non-partisan and has a review by a member of the judiciary or legal profession.

Commissioner Melton alluded to the fact he really did not see a need, as the state has a review process in place via the State Commission on Ethics. However since then he has softened his opposition a bit. 

The State Ethics Commission has adopted a model code of ethics. While this Code itself is not binding on officers or employees of government, it provides a model that state and local government agencies can adopt under authority given to them in the Governmental Conduct Act, after reviewing it to determine which provisions are appropriate for their own circumstances. The model code, for the first time in New Mexico history, compiles the various state ethics laws into a single code of rules, and provides commentary explaining those rules so local government can then draft legislation that is in compliance with ethics code and state law but serves as a local layer of protection to the public. 

Most local governments have adopted or are in the process of implementing local ordinances governing the ethical conduct of public officials. A number of state laws prohibit government employees from committing serious unethical practices such as embezzling funds, receiving kickbacks or unlawful fees, or nepotism.

Federal laws also control conduct by local government officials in certain circumstances. One example is the limitation on political activities imposed by the Hatch Act, 5 USC. submitted the proposed Code of Conduct for the City of Alamogordo to review by 3 Political Science Professors, each with law degrees who at some point taught ethics in politics, and from major universities.

They concluded the proposed ordinance is sound and makes good public policy. Two of the three were surprised that the city of Alamogordo did NOT have a code of conduct policy in place already.

"Codes of Conduct around the Abuse of Power, make many politicians uncomfortable; especially those newly appointed, elected or novices to political office, according to retired, Political Ethics Professor Nelson. He continued, public officials cannot take advantage of their authority to harass other people of opposing political views, improperly gain political advantage, or seek unauthorized favors. Examples of abuse of power include harassment of  the public in forums either directly or indirectly, or other forms of bias; offering or withholding public services based on the political affiliations of those requesting them; partisan favoritism when elected or appointed to a non-partisan position, avoiding criminal citations because of one’s official position; making employment decisions or policy decisions, or contract recommendations based on a personal connection with the applicant, directing the use of government facilities for personal or political events and failure to disclose work relationships that are partisan and could be perceived as a conflict of interest. Failure to disclose or recuse oneself from debate or a vote when a family relationship related to the issue has or does exist."

The new code of conduct being discussed and up for a vote at the City Commission meeting on 10/10/2022 as written is a very solid and positive ordinance, according to 3 political science and ethics professors we presented it to for review. One was republican, one democrat and one independent and each claimed this was a very good draft as written and does a good job at protecting the public and the city. Each really were impressed by the concept that "all actions, decisions, and votes on matters relating to city government shall be on the merits.
Decisions shall be made objectively, without party or partisanship considerations, and without
facts that are not directly and properly related to the matter requiring action."

All were impressed that it takes politics out of the process and allows review by a non-partisan outside individual or committee that has an understanding of law and ethics. This is one of the better pieces of legislation to come before the city commissioners and one of the better versions of a code of conduct for a city this size that they have reviewed.

The professors we contacted, each, especially liked that the City Manager will appoint the Chair of the Ethics Panel. The Chair preferably shall be a lawyer, former judicial official, or former law enforcement. That subpoena power is granted in partnership with the Twelfth Judicial District Court. The non-retaliation clause was important, as well, per our panel review of the proposed ordinance. 

The second ordinance that is also works in unison with the Code of Conduct Ordinance. Consider, and act upon, Ordinance 1659, amending chapter 2 of the Alamogordo Code of Ordinances, by adding 02-050 "City Commission Use of Social Media." The primary focus of this ordinance is accountability and tracking for public records requests. First included is a reminder that the state law requires all "Elected or appointed officials should know that social media posts, comments, and replies to those posts and any direct or private messages sent to appointed or elected officials are public records subject to applicable public records release requests. and that "Elected or appointed officials are prohibited from conducting city business on their private pages."

This ordinance is especially important as to protect the city from potential lawsuits resulting from commissioners not releasing conversations to the public that were public business related to their job or a constituent concern. All correspondence and dialog with constituents are subject to public records requests and not having them centralized in a city database creates significant liability and risk to the city, thus this is a critical ordinance to protect the city from litigation and to ensure transparency and public trust.

The City Commission is meeting 10/11/2022 public comment is encouraged to drive transparency and accountability in government. 

A Pew Research poll recently showed transparency and ethics in government is the one issue both parties agree upon, 61% of Republicans support improvement in transparency and ethics ordinances and regulations on elected and appointed officials, 63% of Democrats support and 64% of independents support.

During the prior meeting, Commissioner Melton questioned if there was not adaquate oversite at the state level. However, the state Commission on Ethics was clear in a report that it is not interested at this point in that role, the role should be delegated to local government with oversite of local government...

"After receiving the views of local governments across New Mexico and
consulting with other state ethics commissions, the Commission does not
recommend that the Legislature expand the Commission’s personal jurisdiction in administrative proceedings to include the officials and employees of county and municipal governments, special districts, or school districts. While such an expansion might be sound in a future legislative session, the Commission does not recommend this expansion now.  Furthermore, the Commission has appropriated funds for only 5 FTE, which is insufficient to undertake a large expansion of the Commission’s adjudicatory role to investigate and decide administrative complaints."

Thus, the Ethics Commission itself recommends local oversite of ethics violations and a local code of conduct at this time. Codes of  Ethics provide transparency and can shed light on trails of dark money that attempts to influence local, state and national politics. Codes of Ethics forces disclosures and sheds light on potential dark money protecting the public from potential corruption

To read the ordinances in question and to comment in support of transparency see the links below...……

The city commission agenda is found at… Social Media and Alamogordo Government Transparency Core Mission
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