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The Year of Truth?



Apparently, 2006 was a year of lies. Heck, 2005 probably was too, and for that matter, so was 2004. But, according to Councilman Edmund Ford, things are going to be different now: "2007 is the year of truth, right or wrong."

One might think Ford is referencing ongoing ethics reform. Changed in the wake of the Tennessee Waltz scandal, state law now requires all Tennessee municipalities to reform ethics guidelines by June. Elected officials must also file possible conflicts of interests with the state, including sources of income greater than $1,000, loans greater than $1,000, and investments greater than $10,000.

But, though ethics reform may make 2007 a year of truth, Ford was talking about investigating whether buildings on the former Libertyland site were removed illicitly. During a City Council committee meeting, parks director Cynthia Buchanan maintained that the only buildings taken from the property were borrowed log cabins. Ford contends that he saw other buildings -- ostensibly city property -- being removed.

I'm not saying he's right or wrong, but, um, Pot, have you met Kettle?

Ford, along with Councilman Rickey Peete, was indicted on federal bribery charges last year. Both have maintained their innocence. And, as their colleagues on the council have often pointed out, a person is innocent until proven guilty.

Even so, Ford doesn't see anything wrong with leasing a car with the help of noted developer Rusty Hyneman.

It's that attitude, fairly common among the council -- that gifts and favors are okay -- that will stall true ethics reform.

When a developer helps you lease a car that you wouldn't be able to afford otherwise, that creates a conflict of interest. Not only are you "friendly" with that person, but you're indebted to them. Otherwise the state wouldn't be asking for a list of any loans more than $1,000.

During the council's first session on ethics reform at a meeting last week, local attorney Lucian Pera told council members they would have to decide what constitutes a conflict of interest and, if in the case of one, how it will be addressed. Will it be strictly prohibited? Or explicitly permitted? Will it be permitted if you disclose it? Will council members who disclose conflicts be required to recuse themselves on certain issues?

Council members can choose to deal solely with propriety or can include the appearance of propriety (or impropriety, as the case may be).

Pera also reviewed the current policy with the council, stating that many sections were "aspirational" in nature and lacking consequences.

When some council members tried to censure Peete and Ford and formally ask them to resign, they were outvoted, helped in part by Ford's own "nay" votes. Even if the votes had gone another way, nothing substantially different would have occurred. Censures don't come with any penalty. You can formally ask someone to resign all you want, but it doesn't mean they have to.

Councilman Brent Taylor asked Pera if there were provisions in the new law for types of punishment, saying the public doesn't want something purely aspirational.

"All we can do is censure. We can't remove other council members. We can't fire them," said Taylor. "I've heard that we need to put teeth in [our ethics policy], but all we're allowed to have are dentures."

I think an aspirational law seems sort of an oxymoron. What is it saying: We hope you don't take a bribe, but it's okay if you do? What about: We hope you don't run a red light? Or, we hope you don't shoot anyone?

Those seem more like recommendations than laws.

It will be interesting to see what rules and punishments, if any, the council enacts in the coming year of ethics reform.

Here's an interesting side note: According to the Chinese calendar, 2007 isn't the year of truth but the year of the pig.

Of course, I'm hoping for the best.

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