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Janesville City Council discusses code of ethics

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MARCIA A. NELESEN
June 29, 2011
— Janesville City Council members could express personal opinions but would have to be clear they do not speak for the council if a proposed code of ethics is approved.

Other regulated conduct would include texting and posting on Facebook during council meetings.


President George Brunner wrote the proposed code for council, commission and committee members, and it was introduced Monday by himself and council member Kathy Voskuil.


Some revisions will be made after Monday’s discussion, and it will return to the council.


“We have to agree to be civic and conduct our meetings with some sort of decorum,” Brunner said.


Brunner said Monday that the code was not written because of the actions of any one council member.


But former council member Frank Perrotto on Monday credited Rashkin as the reason.


Rashkin protested Gov. Scott Walker’s speech here by walking out of a banquet before Walker spoke. He joined people outside who were protesting Walker’s cuts in collective bargaining.


When Perrotto emailed Rashkin the next day upset with his conduct, Rashkin posted the email on his blog. Rashkin also emailed teacher union members, noting Perrotto’s seat was up for re-election the next week. Perrotto lost the election.


The code of conduct provides guidelines for performance of duties and conflicts of interest.


Three topics that caused discussion Monday included:


Conduct

Some members wanted to include “private” conduct as being above reproach as well as official conduct.


Councilman Russ Steeber said residents open themselves to scrutiny when they run for office.


“Your private life has become public,” Steeber said. “It should be above reproach and avoid the appearance of impropriety.”


Voskuil disagreed.


“I don’t see the need to differentiate between the public and private,” she said. “I just don’t think we should legislate people’s private lives.”


Councilman Sam Liebert agreed.


“If I want to go drink 10 beers, that’s my prerogative,” he said. “My image is up to me, and the ultimate deciders are the voters. This is still America. We still have the choice to say what we want to do in our private lives.”


Council members decided that the code should focus on public conduct during official business.


Electronic devices

The code would require that all electronic devices be set aside and silenced so they don’t interfere with meetings and distract others.


Brunner said council members people could excuse themselves if they needed to use the phone for emergencies.


Councilman Tom McDonald said he researches issues and uses the calendar on his phone during meetings. But he said he doesn’t have a problem with the council president asking the council member what he or she is doing.


Voskuil said everybody managed to survive before cell phones.


When a council member is looking up information and not sharing, that goes against the council’s goal of being open, she said.


When Rashkin said he was confused and asked for specifics, Voskuil said she could only talk generally.


“There’s boundaries we need to put in place,” she said. “If you were on the other side and you were trying to communicate to the council, would you like it if someone was looking down or not even looking at you?


“It’s just common courtesy.”


Advocacy

Brunner said council members must make sure people know whether they are speaking in an official capacity or expressing a personal opinion.


Brunner pointed to an article Rashkin wrote for an online magazine. Rashkin signed his name and identified himself as a Janesville council member in the byline and in the article.


In the article, Rashkin bashed Gov. Scott Walker and Republicans.


Brunner said the article appeared to be written on behalf of the council but was filled with Rashkin’s personal opinions.


Rashkin said he was confused by the distinction.


“But if you have a masters degree, or a doctorate, isn’t that important to mention?” he said.


McDonald said that mentioning having a master’s degree doesn’t mean you speak for everyone with a master’s degree.


“I think most of us know when we’re expressing our personal opinion,” Brunner said. “It’s our responsibility to make that differential when we speak.”


All council members but Rashkin voted to keep the language in the proposed code.


Council members have yet to decide whether to include sanctions in the code. That vote was split, with Brunner undecided.


Liebert said elections serve as sanctions. Steeber said elected officials should face consequences for their actions.



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