VAIL, Colo. — When Brian Stockmar was running in 2019 for a seat on the Vail Town Council, he mentioned several times that he’d like that board to have a more clearly-defined ethics code.
The council at its Sept. 15 meeting heard a presentation from Sam Light, an attorney with the Colorado Intergovernmental Risk Sharing Agency, a kind of insurance agency for local and regional governments.
Vail currently operates under the state’s conflict of interest statutes. The core of that law is members of councils and appointed boards have to recuse themselves if they have a direct financial interest in a matter being heard by that council or board.
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For instance, a member of the Town Council who owns a financial company can’t participate in discussions that could send business to that firm.
That’s the baseline rule for all state and local governments in Colorado.
Beyond state law
The town of Avon in 2015 went beyond state law by passing its own code of ethics. That ordinance came in the wake of allegations of impropriety by two councilmembers. Those allegations prompted a third-party investigation that determined those councilmembers acted within state law.
The Avon ordinance requires that business owners who sit on the council can’t do any business with the town.
Avon Mayor Sarah Smith Hymes said that the town’s code of ethics is one of the most strict in Colorado. That ordinance has good and bad elements, Smith Hymes said.
At the time the ordinance was passed, Smith Hymes said there were concerns that “In this small town, where you want to support local business, it basically prohibits anyone (a councilmember) knows from doing business with the town.”
Others wondered if the code of ethics would deter people from running for council, or for small businesses from landing business from the town.
Those early concerns largely haven’t come to pass, Smith Hymes said. And, she added, “everyone on our council has been extremely diligent” about adhering to the code.
“People have tended toward recusal if there’s even a whiff or impropriety,” she said.
Still, she added, there are times when members recusing themselves isn’t in the best interest of the town.
“I understand why people felt it was necessary,” Smith Hymes said. Still, she added, there was an instance when “two or three” members recused themselves. There are cases, though, particularly in complex matters, when all seven voices are needed, she said.
Other local governments
Avon’s code is the most strict in the Eagle River side of Eagle County. Eagle County relies on the state’s conflict laws.
So does the town of Eagle, but that’s likely to change soon.
Eagle Town Manager Brandy Reitter said that a code of ethics is being considered as part of the town’s transition to a home rule municipality.
Reitter said the Eagle Town Council is working to have code in place by the end of this year or early 2021.
In Gypsum, Town Manager Jeremy Rietmann said that town is currently updating its town code. Updating the existing ethics code is part of that review.
Rietmann said the current ethics code applies mostly to how elected and appointed officials behave toward the public, town employees and each other.
Stockmar believes it’s time for Vail to have its own code.
Stockmar in the 1970s was part of a student group at the University of Denver that created a code of ethics. That college experience convinced Stockmar that such codes can be useful.
“It’s been important to me all my life,” Stockmar said. Perceived ethics lapses can erode trust, Stockmar added.
“Ethics goes way beyond conflicts of interest,” Stockmar said. In fact, Stockmar in less than a year on the council has already recused himself from a land use discussion. That recusal was based on Stockmar’s former tenure on the Vail Planning and Environmental Commission.
That board had looked several times at the proposal before the council, and had rejected it every time.
In the “quasi-judicial” setting of the proposal before the council, Stockmar said he wanted to avoid the appearance of bias.
A former securities attorney, Stockmar said it’s established legal practice for someone to recuse if that person has even a “sense of bias” in a matter.
In his time on Vail’s planning board and council, Stockmar acknowledged that conflicts are “rare.” But, he added, town officials still need to “work very hard” to avoid the perception of conflicts.
“The most important way (to address) this is full disclosure,” he said.
Vail Daily Business Editor Scott Miller can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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