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Ethics panel weighs definition of elected officer

In a fourth-floor conference room at Citizen’s Square on Monday, four men and two women pored over a packet of paper and at one point wrestled with the definition of “elected officer.”

In proposed amendments to Allen County’s ethics ordinance, an “Elected Officer” is defined as:

“Any elected officer elected to the office by the citizens of Allen County, wholly compensated through tax dollars or user fees originating in Allen County and whose budget is reviewed and approved by the Allen County Council.”

Thomas Hardin, a local attorney and a member of the county’s ethics commission, piped in after a reading of that: “What does it mean? Couldn’t it just say someone elected by the citizens of Allen County?”

“We’re just trying to be more specific,” said Allen County Commissioner Nelson Peters, who sat next to Hardin.

So went the latest meeting of the ethics commission, which became a small peak into how a law gets changed, rearranged and remade.

The three-member panel went over proposed changes to the county’s ethics ordinance with Peters and his assistant during the meeting, trying to iron out various definitions and close possible loopholes in the law.

They hashed out what “conflict of interest” really means, actually who is subject to the ordinance and who is exempt from the ordinance and what power the ethics commission would have.

The county commissioners are expected to vote on a new ordinance in the near future, possibly even Friday, Peters told the panel.

Proposed changes could:

Speed up the process from when a complaint is filed to a ruling by the board, expand the number of members on the board and what punishments can be suggested by the board.

“I don’t know yet if we’ve closed all the loopholes,” said Peters during the meeting.

The county’s ethics ordinance came under fire in the past year after then-county councilman Paul Moss was pulled over by an Allen County Sheriff’s officer in June and refused a breath test.

One phone call to Allen County Sheriff Ken Fries later, and Moss was allowed to find a ride home without having to take any more field sobriety tests.

A citizen’s complaint against Moss and Fries to the ethics commission ultimately took six months to resolve completely.

The complaint against Fries was dropped because he was subject to a different code of ethics enacted by the Indiana Sheriff’s Association.

It was always cloudy whether Moss was subject to the ordinance as an elected official, or whether the ethics commission could stick him with any punishment if they found he committed any wrongdoing.

In the end, the ethics commission also dropped the complaint against Moss after he apologized for making the call to Fries.

The proposed changes to the ordinance make it clear that elected officials – such as Moss and Fries – are indeed subject to the ordinance.

The amendments would also add two members to the panel, who would serve staggered terms. No more than three members would be from the same political party.

It would require the panel to meet within 14 days of a complaint being filed in order to jump-start the process and keep it from dragging on, as was the perception in the Moss case.

As far as punishments, the amendments call for giving the panel the power to suggest punishments for employees or elected officials.

The most severe punishment the commission could recommend to an elected official would basically be a censure, according to the proposed changes.

Monday, the group discussed who would enforce that censure, and whether it would be up to the elected official to give that censure to himself or herself.

“Let us work that a little bit and see where we go,” Peters said of the issue.

The mood lightened a little at that point, as the meeting began to draw to a close.

“I can think of a lot of punishments we can invoke,” said Hardin jokingly, just as someone brought up the idea of public flogging and trapping someone in a stockade.

jeffwiehe@jg.net

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