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Park Ridge considers changing ethics rules

Laws and LegislationLocal GovernmentEthicsNorth Suburban Cook CountyO'Hare International AirportNews

The Park Ridge City Council is considering changes to its ethics rules in the wake of a recently dismissed complaint against an alderman and a city commission chairman that prompted the first review of the ethics ordinance since its 2003 inception.

Some of the alterations being considered would force Park Ridge residents alleging ethical lapses by city officials to cite in their complaint specific parts of city code they believe are being violated – or risk fines for frivolous complaints. Aldermen also might get the final word on whether to investigate complaints, or an ethics commission might be convened to hear complaints.

Aldermen meeting Monday night as the city council's informal committee of the whole unanimously agreed to continue discussion, and defer any decisions on the matter, to the committee's March 24 meeting.

Currently, there are two ways to bring a complaint.

Part of the city code allows people to file allegations by affidavit. Once filed, the city attorney must hire an outside "independent reviewer" to investigate the claim. If a complaint is sustained, the city manager must hire a special attorney to pursue the complaint in Cook County Circuit Court.

The second pathway doesn't require an affidavit, but does require the city attorney to review the complaint and advise the City Council, which then decides what to do on the alleged violation.

City Attorney Everette "Buzz" Hill recommended dropping the first option and changing the second so that the city attorney would bring complaints to the City Council for "a determination of further action."

The council could do so in closed session – a nod, Hill said, to the possibility that an official's name could be permanently linked in online search engines to the phrase "ethics violation" even if there is determined to be no such violation.

Mayor David Schmidt balked at the idea of allowing the City Council to decide whether a complaint should be investigated, saying that would allow a majority of aldermen to kill any complaint, "and I'm not sure that's the right way to go."

"I'm not concerned about this group, but we have to be thinking about the future," Schmidt said. "In my mind, you have to go back to the drawing board on this … People need to have confidence in the ethics ordinance, to know it has teeth."

Some aldermen agreed with Schmidt, while some seemed open to the idea of an ethics commission to review complaints.

Hill said he didn't include an ethics commission in his proposed revamp, "but it is a possibility" as an alternative.

Aldermen also discussed – without conclusion – whether people filing ethics complaints should be required to cite specific parts of city code that are allegedly being violated, and whether those filing frivolous complaints should be fined.

Hill said knowingly filing a false complaint already is a violation, but the city must hire a special prosecutor to pursue such charges.

Hill said he will provide new proposed ethics ordinance updates on March 24.

The review was prompted by a complaint filed in January by Park Ridge resident Gene Spanos – founder of the anti-airplane noise group Citizens Against Plane Pollution – against 6th Ward Ald. Marc Mazzuca and Jim Argionis, chairman of the city's O'Hare Airport Commission. Spanos said their participation in the Chicago-based anti-noise group Fair Allocation in Runways violated Park Ridge's ethics ordinance and were conflicts of interest.

Retired Judge James P. Etchingham, who was hired to investigate Spanos' complaints, dismissed them in a Feb. 26 report that also stated: "Quite frankly, this is a matter that should never have been subject to any investigation."

Hill also recommended clarifying language defining "prohibited political activity," as the current code defines both "political activity" and "prohibited" political activity; and changing the period for economic disclosure statements from "past year" to "calendar year" to clear confusion over whether "past year" referred to the last 12 months or the previous calendar year.

Hill said the 2003 ordinance, which became a model for other suburbs' ethics ordinances, was designed to avoid the potential for a group of aldermen to derail a complaint by simply deciding to not investigate. While it's worked well, he said the ordinance is also now almost 11 years old and a review is due.

Mazzuca, who normally chairs discussions of "procedures and regulations," recused himself from both the chair and discussion. Although Schmidt said doing so isn't necessary since Mazzuca has been absolved of any wrongdoing, Mazzuca said he will continue to do so.

"I have some very strong opinions about this issue and I don't want to color debate with those very strong opinions," he said.

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Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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