Code of Ethics for Public Officials
The municipal government of the City of Whitewater can only be as effective as it is independent, impartial and responsible to the people. For this reason, all public officials, whether elected, appointed, or otherwise employed by the City of Whitewater are expected to adhere to ethical standards as outlined in Wis. Stats. Secs.19.41-19.59 and as outlined in chapter 7 of the municipal code of ordinances. Chapter 7 of the Whitewater Municipal Code of Ordinances is included at the end of this manual.
In general, the state ethics law as referenced above, prohibits the following conduct:
Use of Office for Private Gain: Public officials are prohibited from using their offices to obtain financial gain or anything of substantial value for the private benefit of themselves, their immediate families, or organizations (including employers) with which they are associated (see Sec. 19.59(1)(a), Wis. Stats.).
Offering or Receiving Anything of Value: No person may give and no public official may receive "anything of value" if it could reasonably be expected to influence the local public official's vote, official action or judgment, or could reasonably be considered as a reward for any official action or inaction (see Sec. 19.59(1)(b), Wis. Stats.).
When to Recuse Oneself
While the full code of ethics as outlined in ordinance is at the end of this manual. The subject of recusing oneself is worth mentioning here. To recuse oneself from a discussion essentially means to remove oneself from discussion to avoid a conflict of interest.
Public officials should recuse themselves from discussion when there is a clear conflict of interest. In such cases, recusal does not just mean abstaining from a vote, but means instead to step away from the discussion of an item completely.
When a public official recuses himself or herself from discussion and action on a particular item, the recusal is noted in the minutes of the meeting. In most cases, it is appropriate, though not required, for the recused public official to leave the room where public discussion is taking place to ensure that s/he can have no influence on the discussion or final action in any way.
Ex Parte Communications
The Plan Commission Handbook Second Edition 2012, Rebecca Roberts, University of Wisconsin Extension at pages 15 and 16, describes how public officials should avoid ex parte communications regarding quasi-judicial matters pending or that may come before the council, a committee, commission, or Board. These decisions often involve application of laws, such as ordinances, to facts (for example a request for a conditional use permit). It states:
“[Public officials] should not have conversations or receive correspondence regarding a quasijudicial matter that is pending before [the city] or which may come before [the city] except during a noticed meeting or hearing on the matter. Such outside contacts are known as “ex parte communication.” Ex parte communications may not be considered in decision-making unless it is disclosed and made part of the official record in the matter. The [body] as a whole can then determine the admissibility of the information and individual members can determine its credibility and weight in deciding their vote on the issue.
The reason for exclusion of ex parte information is that parties are entitled to know and examine the source of information used by [the city] in its decision-making. Outside discussion regarding procedural matters such as scheduling a meeting or explaining how to file an application is permissible. Ex parte communication is not a concern when enacting legislation or making administrative decisions (i.e. issuing simple zoning or building permits).”
In order to avoid ex parte communications, the handbook recommends:
- Suggesting that members of the public present information in an open meeting or hearing or submit a written comment.
- Disclosing ex parte communications at an open meeting or hearing and make the information part of the record so that it can be considered in decision making.