Springfield voters are likely to consider a ballot issue about financial conflict of interest for elected and appointed persons when they vote April 4.
Question 4 would change the Springfield City Charter section on conflicts of interest for City Council members, plus appointed officials who draw city government salaries, city employees and elected and appointed persons who serve on commissions and boards. If approved, the charter would bar an elected official or city employee or their business from making more than $5,000 per year from city government contracts. It also spells out that such contracts would be subject to open bidding and vetting.
If your eyes just glazed over, you are not alone.
That’s why, after some debate on Jan. 9, the Springfield City Council voted to wait until Jan. 17 to decide whether or not Question 4 will go to voters this spring. Mayor Ken McClure made the motion to table the bill containing the ballot question.
“We can reflect on that a little more and make sure that we are comfortable with what we are doing,” McClure said. “How best do we address the lack of clarity in our current charter, which has presented issues? And I think that’s our challenge.”
Two members of the Springfield City Council expressed concerns over ballot language and a pending deferral to state laws governing conflict of interest.
The language, City Manager Jason Gage said, is borrowed from other major cities in Missouri, and defers Springfield’s ethics policy to the same state law that governs state government officials.
“It’s not a new approach,” Gage said. “We’re not making things up. We’re able to grab onto language that’s been there for some time.”
Some interest is allowed by state law
Zone 1 Councilwoman Monica Horton took issue with the phrase “any financial interest,” in the ballot question, because state law allows an elected or salaried appointed official to have some financial interest in public transactions without breaking the law.
Horton wanted to eliminate the exceptions found within state law, which allows an officeholder or employee with at least a 10 percent stake in a company that does business with taxing entities to do $5,000 worth of business with that taxing entity per year without running afoul of conflict laws.
“The city charter sounds as though there shouldn’t be any financial interest, but it sounds like the state statute is saying we can have a financial interest,” Horton said. “For me, I would feel a lot better if, as elected officials, we did not have any particular financial interests in the contracts, or the sale of property, or what have you within the city.”
Councilman Mike Schilling took issue with the legalese of the ballot question. He believes it will confuse voters.
“I just tried to read that as if I was a layman that didn’t really know the ins and outs of what was going on here,” Schilling said. “I have this simplistic response. I know what it says, but what does it mean?”
Schilling asked if some sort of explanation language could be included on the ballot.
“‘We’re doing this to maybe tighten up our conflict of interest laws,’ or something that explains why we’re making it like the state,” Schilling said. “I would be puzzled to know how to vote; that’s what I’m saying.”
Gage and City Attorney Rhonda Lewsader said the laws governing ballot proposals make it impossible to put an explainer on ballots, but there could be some more basic wording on informational materials the city can provide to voters before the election.
“We have to be careful about including any language that can be argumentative, as if we’re attempting to sway voters by including the language,” Lewsader said.
Official ballot language
Shall Section 19.16 of the Springfield City Charter be amended to prohibit any financial interest in a City of Springfield contract by City councilmembers, officers, board and commission members, or employees which violates state law, the Missouri constitution, or any ordinance of the City of Springfield?
Using borrowed policy language
Gage said conflicts of interest can and will occur in the future, but Springfield could approach the conflicts with more universal policy in place across Missouri, rather than unique to Springfield.
“We know anytime there is a conflict of interest, it’s a pretty uncomfortable situation,” Gage said. “Every so many years, you’re going to have a conflict of interest situation come up and have to deal with it. The current language we have is very customized language in our charter.”
The main intent, Gage said, is to eliminate the terms “direct’’ and “indirect” in relation to finances, and replace them with “interests in violations of the laws or the constitution of the state of Missouri or an ordinance of the city of Springfield,” Gage said. The rules would apply to City Council members, officers, employees and board and commission members.
“That sounds pretty good, ‘direct’ and ‘indirect,’ the problem is we don’t have definitions,” Gage said. “I think you could get most people to agree on what a direct conflict of interest is, but an indirect is an exceptionally broad and ambiguous term, and I think creates tremendous confusion.”
Fisk case is recent example
The language in Springfield’s charter governing ethics became a focal point of a complaint and investigation into Councilwoman Jan Fisk, who held office for almost a decade.
Fisk and her husband, J. Howard Fisk, own Fisk Transportation, a bus and limousine company. She was accused of violating ethics laws when a Kansas City company, Executive Limousines, that won a city government contract put together a subcontract deal with Fisk Transportation while Fisk was on the Springfield City Council.
Fisk paid the city of Springfield $3,453 in the wake of an ethics investigation that was found to have cost the city of Springfield about $117,000 in legal fees, according to past reporting by the Springfield News-Leader. Fisk also paid a $100 fine to the state.
The Missouri Ethics Commission found grounds to conclude Fisk violated provisions of the city charter prohibiting a member of the Springfield City Council, “from having direct or indirect financial interest in a city contract or in the sale of services to the city.”
The Fisk case exposed what Gage described as the flaws and ambiguities of the words “direct” and “indirect” in the city charter.
The charter amendment language also spells out the penalty for a person found to violate conflict of interest laws.
“Any violation of this Section renders the contract or sale void, and any council member, officer, employee, or board or commission member violating the (s)ection thereby forfeits his office or employment,” the proposed charter amendment reads.