Ethics Ordinance a big step for Wayne County


Gary Woronchak
By Gary Woronchak
The Ethics Ordinance approved April 5 by the Wayne County Commission is a major step forward in making our county government the sort of open and fair operation it should be.

It’s easy to be cynical toward government, and what minimal news media coverage final approval of the ordinance received may have left the impression that the new rules might not change the culture and climate in the county.

In fact, the Ethics Ordinance will result in a better Wayne County government. While ethical standards have been pieced into other ordinances over the years, there has never been a stand-alone ordinance specifically for ethical conduct by all county officials and employees.

Ethics provisions already were in place in the county’s Procurement Ordinance, which sets guidelines for purchasing and contracts. In 1994, then-commissioner and now Circuit Judge Susan Hubbard amended the county’s Contracting Ordinance by adding a section titled Ethics in Public Contracting, requiring disclosure to avoid conflicts of interest in the contracting process. These provisions were later rolled into the broader Procurement Ordinance.

More recently, our Auditor General recommended in 2010 that a countywide code of ethics be created. The county commission formed an Ethics Task Force to begin the process of studying ethics laws in other municipalities.

One of my first actions as chairman of the commission in early 2011 was to re-establish the Ethics Task Force with the assignment of completing an ordinance within one year, a reasonable time frame identical to what Macomb County voters mandated in their recently adopted county charter.

This timeline is important because it shows the Wayne County Commission did not scramble to create an Ethics Ordinance in the wake of the scandals that erupted around county government last fall. We recognized the need for stronger ethics controls several months before the federal investigation into county government became known.

Along with months of reviewing and deliberating by commissioners, two public hearings were held and all elected county officeholders were invited to contribute to the writing of the ordinance. It was truly a collaboration through an inclusive process, carefully crafted through study and discussion.

So, why is this a big deal? What exactly does it do?

The Ethics Ordinance sets into law standards of conduct, defining ethical behavior in several areas where the lack of such definition can result in individuals or companies having unfair advantages, getting preferential treatment, getting unduly enriched or just not playing fair.

Conflicts of interest are covered, as are gifts and gratuities that could influence decisions by county officials. Incompatible employment issues are addressed, along with nepotism and the misuse of public resources for private purposes.

Importantly, it puts into law a prohibition on the use of county time and property for political activity. It also requires personal disclosure statements to be available online for public scrutiny to avoid hidden conflicts of interest.

Any who suggest the Ethics Ordinance has no teeth are ignoring one of its most important features – the enforcement mechanism. Key to the entire effort, an Ethics Board is established to receive and consider complaints of possible violations of the ordinance, which are punishable by a $500 fine. The ordinance sets standards of conduct and creates a way to hold accountable those who do not live up to those standards.

This ordinance is not a cure-all for Wayne County’s ills. It would not have prevented the $200,000 severance payout to the former official who became Metro Airport CEO. We dealt with that with an ordinance I introduced requiring commission approval of benefits beyond normal salary and fringes, ending secret, big-money deals.

Nor would an ethics ordinance prevent anyone from illegally shaking down companies that do business with the county for personal gain, as it has been alleged some county appointees have done. There are laws dealing with that on a higher level.

However, it is possible that provisions in the Ethics Ordinance could stem the cozy relationships and shadowy conflicts of interest that can lead to cronyism and, ultimately, the sort of problems the county is dealing with now.

No ordinance is perfect. There are bits and pieces of this Ethics Ordinance that are open to legitimate criticism. But on the whole, I say with confidence this is good work.

The ordinance allows 60 days to set up practical aspects of its implementation, including appointments to the seven-member Ethics Board. By June 4, there will be in place a system for filing complaints, an online presence, staffing and more.

In the meantime, the new Wayne County Ethics Ordinance can be read online. There’s a link to the ordinance on the Wayne County Commission’s web page at waynecounty.com/commission.

(Wayne County Commission Chairman Gary Woronchak represents Dearborn, Allen Park and Melvindale.)

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