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Andy Burton: What good are rules without accountability?

Andy Burton

Over the past couple of weeks there has been a great deal of focus and discussion on Nevada City Councilwoman Reinette Senum and some controversial comments she made on Facebook.

Her comments, and the reaction from the Nevada City Police Officers Association, generated a very strong reaction from the public, and as seems to be the norm here in Nevada County we have quickly separated into two very distinct and polarized camps. There are those who condemn the choices Ms. Senum made in expressing her views and there are those who have unflinchingly come out in her defense.

The two sides will likely never come to full agreement, but perhaps it’s time to shift focus to the Nevada City mayor and the remainder of the Nevada City Council and their roles and responsibilities in this whole episode.

On March 14, 2007, the then-sitting Nevada City Council unanimously voted to approve a code of conduct for the city council and city planning commission. All five council members voted yes on Resolution No. 2007-09 (Cottrell, Harris, McKay, Stein and Coffman). No nays, abstentions or absentees were recorded.

The resolution, which was signed by Mayor Steve Cottrell, included in the opening recitals, the following two ‘Whereas’ statements …

“Whereas, the City Council desires to ensure that the residents and businesses in Nevada City are serviced by a fair, ethical and accountable local government, and …”

“Whereas, local government can govern effectively only if it has the confidence of the community, and …”

By these statements in the adopted resolution it seems clear that the intent was to raise high the bar for Nevada City elected officials, and to hold them accountable for their words and their actions.

The Code of Conduct document itself is five pages in length and contains a total of 18 articles, all them addressing various aspects of adherence to laws, respectful conduct and participation in meetings, and other such topics.

Article 3 of the Code of Conduct, titled “Conduct of Members” reads as follows:

“The professional and personal conduct of members must be above reproach and avoid even the appearance of impropriety. Members shall refrain from abusive conduct, personal charges or verbal attacks upon the character or motives of other members of the Council and Planning Commission; the staff or the public.”

Article 18, titled “Compliance and Enforcement” states:

“The City Council may impose sanctions on members whose conduct does not comply with the City’s ethical standards, such as reprimand, formal censure, loss of seniority or committee assignment, or budget restriction.”

It would appear that in making her comments Ms. Senum violated Article 3 of the Nevada City Council Code of Conduct. The Nevada City mayor, in conjunction with the remainder of the council, has chosen to not formally reprimand or formally censure her. They held a quickly cobbled together public forum that played out like a very public and collective venting. The city council and management have not come out as a group to condemn her comments or make a collective statement of her being in the wrong on this issue. The only explanation that has been offered for this decision is that Nevada City officials are concerned that doing so may impede Ms. Senum’s right to free speech.

I’m concerned that this failure to take a strong position further impacts the already shaky relationship between the Nevada City Council and the police department that reports to them. They have publicly announced their collective vote of “no confidence” in Ms. Senum in her role as a City Council member. Many personal opinions and comments were made by individual council members, but there has been no formal statement of reprimand or censure. Leaving the police officers’ vote of non-confidence hanging out in public, unaddressed, hardly seems consistent with the overall intent of the Code of Conduct. Not formally responding in this case is irresponsible and a failure to understand the responsibilities of elected officials.

It might seem slightly outrageous to conclude from this whole series of events that Nevada City in fact has no Code of Conduct for its elected officials. However, if none of the parties responsible for its enforcement are willing to stand up and hold members accountable and mete out reprimands and/or censure, then that is the only logical conclusion.

The resulting message that is being sent to the residents of Nevada City, and by extension Nevada County, is that the words of their elected officials carry the same weight, and are held to the same standard, as comments made on Facebook and other social media. How scary is that?

Andy Burton, who lives in Grass Valley, is a member of The Union Editorial Board. His opinion is his own and does not represent the viewpoint of The Union or its editorial board. Contact him at EditBoard@TheUnion.com.


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