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La Plata County commissioners consider new ethical policies

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Friday, Dec. 1, 2017 10:53 AM
Blake

The La Plata County commissioners are considering new ethical policies that address paid travel, lobbying and perceived conflicts of interest.

Commissioners reviewed a draft of the new rules during a work session Wednesday. They plan to revisit the proposed policies in January after they have had a chance to submit written comments in December.

Chairwoman Julie Westendorff said Wednesday the draft rules evaluate the correct issues.

"That policy is a really good place to start," she said.

Commissioners asked county staff members to draft policies to incorporate some best practices recommended by the Eagle County Attorney's Office, which reviewed paid travel by commissioners this year after some members of the public expressed concerns about conflicts, County Manager Joanne Spina said.

The La Plata County commissioners are considering new ethical policies that address paid travel, lobbying, perceived conflicts of interest and disclosing possible appearances of impropriety.
Durango Herald file

In June, a handful of residents attended a public meeting and spoke about their concerns that Commissioner Gwen Lachelt accepted paid travel from Western Leaders Network to testify in Washington, D.C., about the Bureau of Land Management methane venting and flaring rule. Lachelt is the founder of Western Leaders Network, an environmental conservation nonprofit.

Westendorff

Commissioner Brad Blake also was questioned about accepting payment from Trout Unlimited to travel to Washington, D.C., to meet with EPA leaders to discuss cleanup funding of the Animas River.

A review by the Eagle County Attorney's Office in October found no wrongdoing, but it did make some recommendations that would update the county's existing ethics policies.

The draft policies would require a commissioner to disclose any actual or perceived conflict of interest or possible appearances of impropriety associated with anything that is going to be discussed during a meeting.

Lachelt

Westendorff suggested the board begin to immediately offer the opportunity to disclose conflicts or perceived conflicts of interest during meetings as part of the regular agenda. Other commissioners agreed.

That opportunity will appear on commissioners' business agendas starting in two weeks, Spina said.

The draft policies prohibit an outside group from paying for commissioners' travel unless it benefits the county as a whole.

Organizations would have to offer the sponsored travel to and pay La Plata County government for the travel expenses rather than a particular commissioner, according to the draft policies.

Whether the travel is allowed would also depend on the organization paying for the trip, whether a conflict of interest or appearance of impropriety exists, the purpose of the trip and other factors.

Blake said he supported outside groups paying for travel through the country. He said he would have preferred that Trout Unlimited paid the county for his trip.

"If we want the trust of the people in the community, we need to be transparent," he said.

The proposed policies would also require commissioners to report to other commissioners any invitations they receive and to decide which person would best represent the commission. The policies could apply if a commissioner was invited to attend a convention, fact-finding mission or other meeting where the commissioner would be representing the county.

Commissioners may also be required to discuss in advance a commissioner's participation in lobbying efforts and to decide who would represent the commission in those efforts.

Westendorff expressed a concern that the rules about invitations and lobbying could be too limiting in certain situations. For example, if a board member happened to run into a state official on a trip and could advocate for funding that would benefit the county, she wouldn't want officials to miss the opportunity.

"It's just really important that whatever policies we adopt allow commissioners to effectively advocate for the county," she said.

mshinn@durangoherald.com

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