Often, town board members discuss regulations and codes -- regarding others. On Monday, they mulled over etiquette and codes of conduct for themselves. A first-ever discussion of the ins and outs of being a trustee, with Mayor Bill Pinkham, town attorney Greg White, town administrator Jacquie Halburnt and the town board, provided a welcome to two newly elected trustees, in a work session Monday morning. They talked about governmental roles and rules -- in a sort of school for no scandal, Trustee 101.
Mayor Pinkham told the group he thought the four-hour work session was helpful.
"We have not done this before," he said. "It`s a new board. It`s good to get on the same page."
He joked that it sometimes takes board members many months of trial and effort to assimilate the information that was presented to them as guidelines at the work session.
"We`ve got a good board. I`m looking forward to getting on with it and doing good for the town," Pinkham said.
Trustee Jerry Miller observed, "We didn`t have this kind of session when John (Ericson) and I were elected."
The round-table discussion covered ways to avoid potential legal issues and conflicts of interest, what constitutes a public meeting, a policy for a code of conduct and the board liaison role. Two more work sessions (May 11 and May 25) are planned to consider other topics, including pro-active communications and finances. Newly seated board members Wendy Koenig and Mark Elrod asked cogent questions, some arising from their own experiences dealing with the town as citizens. Elrod, in particular, wanted to know the reasons behind some procedures. All trustees (incumbent, re-elected and newly elected) expressed concern about the public perception of the town government and hoped to create proper understanding of their roles and how they interact with the public and other entities.
Miller said that, generally, the public doesn`t understand what the town board and mayor do or don`t do. He hoped to clarify confusion. Pinkham said that in the last several years, the town board has been through a lot of things without much guidance. He expressed appreciation for the work trustees Eric Blackhurst (re-elected) and Miller (incumbent) provided in creating a succinct policy for a code of conduct.
Being a trustee involves learning some hard skills to handle difficult situations, Pinkham said. Having a written code of ethics and conduct ensures trustees will not put themselves knowingly in positions that might compromise them, when requests are made of them or they are in problematic circumstances. However, situations are what they are, he added, and sometimes there are no-win circumstances that are "tough to walk away from. But it goes with the job," he said.
Mayor pro-tem Chuck Levine predicted the new board members would be seeing some no-win situations soon, but did not elaborate.
Pinkham said he had felt the need for a code of conduct through the years and was spurred on by an event that he called "scripted and very unfortunate" during Mayor John Baudek`s term, involving a verbal attack on a council member during a Boy Scout presentation. Baudek was caught off guard, he said.
Pinkham became convinced of the usefulness of a code of conduct, from his years working at Weyerhauser. An antitrust suit forced the sale of the company and the institution of a code of conduct and ethics, requiring an intensive annual review by all employees. As a result of the company policy, Pinkham said he was never placed in a situation where he had to apologize for the company.
When Pinkham first brought the idea of creating a code of conduct to the town board last September, he said it was not wildly popular. It was not meant as a rebuke to the board, he explained, and he was delighted when Miller and Blackhurst produced a quick reference that summarizes the behaviors of town elected and appointed officials in the performance of their official duties and interaction with the public and town administration. He called it a good document and said he was pleased when the board officially adopted it. He directed that the new trustees receive a copy. The Code of Conduct was unanimously passed by the trustees at their February 23, 2010, meeting."We`re talking about a lot more than ethics," he said. "It`s the interaction with the public and other board members, interpersonal actions and the way we conduct business."
That involves trust, respect, accountability and leadership. Those topics and more will be highlighted in future stories.