While the enthusiasm was underwhelming, the action is a move in the right direction.
The issue hasn’t been visited in earnest since 2007, when several citizens and one member of the City Council stood in favor of writing an ethics policy that extended beyond the guidelines of the California Constitution and the Brown Act, the state’s open-meeting law.
At the time, the city faced a public-records request and lawsuit brought by the Tracy Press seeking correspondence sent from a councilwoman’s private email address allegedly regarding city business. A record-purging campaign by the city coincided with the requests and the lawsuit.
The Press lost the legal battle on procedural grounds. Documents were cleared. And, sadly but not unexpectedly, the conduct code concept was brushed off by a majority of the council.
Five years later, with a mostly new council and different management in City Hall, the underlying issue remains. The public official-private citizen dichotomy is a thorny one, and elected officers can use the help navigating it.
The July 17 proposal offered by city staff members would take steps toward this end, with part of one sample code stating: “City Council members may only use city resources … to conduct city business. Such resources may not be used for personal or political purposes.”
A helpful addition might read something like this: “Correspondence to and from City Council members regarding business before the council and city activities shall be considered public records, whether generated using private or public resources.”
Such language would ensure elected officials could not neuter the California Public Records Act by simply using a personal email account to conduct behind-the-scenes business.
It would also be an extra guard against serial meetings, an illegal arrangement in which elected officials and individuals with business before the city reach a voting consensus on policy through a series of private meetings.
At the same time, it’s imperative to open lines of communication between the council and Tracy residents. Democracy depends on that exchange being free and unencumbered. Overly rigid rules can’t come between the citizenry and its elected officials.
Final adoption of any code is at least several weeks away. But whatever is finally produced, it should be based on the principle that a code of conduct should be in the spirit of opening, not closing, government to the people.