Despite two Belmont planning commissioners’ refusal to sign a new code of ethics aimed at promoting collegiality among elected and appointed officials, the City Council decided to let them finish their terms as long as they abide by the rules.
Planning commissioners Kristin Mercer and Karin Hold chose not to sign the code because they felt it stifled freedom of speech and consequentially faced the council dismissing them at a meeting Tuesday night.
The code, which was adopted June 10, was created in response to public disapproval over the way some commissioners and councilmembers treated each other and the community they serve, according to the council. To give the new mandate teeth, appointed officials can be dismissed and elected officials can be turned down for committee seats, Mayor Warren Lieberman said.
“When we adopted the code of ethics we weren’t looking for a litmus test,” Lieberman said, according to a video of Tuesday night’s meeting. “My perception was we had heard from the community that they wanted us, that is the council and the commissioners, to behave respectfully, to work well with each other, to treat the members of the public … with respect and dignity.”
Within the code, city representatives are to avoid offensive language, conduct active listening, avoid smirking or insulting the public, staff and peers. Appointed and elected officials are encouraged to have free debates, but to avoid making belligerent, personal, abusive or disparaging comments, according to the code.
Speaking as a citizen, Mary Morrissey, president of the Belmont Chamber of Commerce, said the council behaved poorly during the Crystal Springs Upland School planning debate and wants city representatives to abide by their rules.
“With Crystal Springs, it was a circus, it was not comfortable for me to see the looks and some of the comments. To me, it was very unprofessional and unsightly,” Morrissey said.
But other members of the public, Mercer and former mayor Dave Warden said the council had gone too far and accused councilmembers of violating their own code.
Planning Commission Chair Mark Herbach, who signed the code, said he was speaking as a member of the public at the meeting in support of Mercer and Hold.
“I’m not here to speculate on why two planning commissioners didn’t sign the document, I’m here to tell you in my dealings with both. … I’ve seen nothing but ethical behavior,” Herbach said. “This almost smells of McCarthyism where you’re kicking people off the Planning Commission for failing to sign the document when in fact there have been no violations.”
Mercer, who’s been on the commission for nine years, said elected and appointed officials already take an oath to abide by state and federal mandates.
“The language part with respect to conduct is very subject to interpretation and really opens the door to be used for censorial purposes or vindictive purposes,” Mercer said after the meeting. “I haven’t broken any law or ethical code, I simply don’t find their code necessary. ... So the only purpose of it must be to control people’s ability to express their opinions.”
The councilmembers and city attorney said the code does not infringe on free speech but encourages people express their opinions tactfully. The councilmembers said their intent was not to dismiss anyone and were surprised Hold and Mercer refused to sign.
Councilman Eric Reed said he’d worked with Mercer while on the Planning Commission.
“I struggle with why someone wouldn’t want to sign that; someone that I’ve worked with in the past who I thought had a lot of integrity,” Reed said. “[The code] doesn’t limit freedom of speech … it’s simply saying I will behave a certain way.”
The council questioned why Mercer and Hold hadn’t brought up their concerns during the public hearing process when the code was first being discussed.
Mercer said she was intimidated to speak up during the process because she had been accused of violating the Brown Act on an unrelated matter after sending an email expressing concern to the mayor.
Mercer added none of the commissioners were consulted during the formation of the code and said the poor behavior of a few former commissioners and councilmembers didn’t warrant the code.
Voters choose whom they want in office and sometimes people prefer boisterous and outspoken representatives, Mercer said.
Because commissioners are appointed, not voted into office, the public doesn’t have the ability to dismiss them.
Lieberman said if Mercer, an appointed official or any member of the public ever felt intimidated or mistreated they should approach the city attorney, city manager, mayor or an appropriate staff member.
The council emphasized public representatives are held to higher standards, but ultimately allowed the commissioners to finish their terms because Mercer and Hold didn’t know of the code before they started. However, anyone who applies in the future will be required to sign.
Mercer said her term runs out in February and wasn’t planning on applying again and Hold was not available for comment.
Councilman Charles Stone and Lieberman said signatures are symbolic and would still hold all of the commissioners to the standards of the ethics code.
“Once you become an appointed or elected official, whether you like it or not you’re an ambassador of this city. And this makes it clear there’s certain behaviors that are not acceptable when you’re in your official capacity,” Stone said. “I very much expect that they will conform with the code of ethics now that they’ve read it. Whether they sign it or not, my expectation is that they’ll comply with it.”
For more information about the Belmont Code of Ethics and Conduct for Elected and Appointed Officials visit www.belmont.gov.
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