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Santa Ana Uses Inclusive Approach to Develop Ethics Code

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This article describes the City of Santa Ana’s experience with adopting a code of ethics.

Western City, December 2008

by Patricia E. Healy and Alma Flores

Santa Ana’s Measure D, passed by voters in February 2008, made two changes to the city charter: It extended city council members’ term limits from two terms to three and called for adoption of a Code of Ethics and Conduct for elected officials and members of appointed boards, commissions and committees. Given that the public can be skeptical of the power and influence held by elected officials, especially when being asked to extend term limits, this measure generated a lot of attention and interest in the community.

The goal of the Code of Ethics and Conduct is to ensure public confidence in the integrity of local government elected and appointed officials. The code had to be adopted within six months of the charter amendment taking effect. Following Measure D’s passage, the city council established an ad hoc committee to develop the ethics code and a set of recommendations.

According to Mayor Pro Tem Claudia Alvarez, who chaired the committee, “The priority was to establish an ethics code to promote an honest, effective and accountable city government, encour age high standards of behavior by public officials and assist with decision-making.” The code’s framework is designed to guide public officials in their daily duties to help ensure that they exercise their public responsibilities without conflicts or im proprieties — whether actual or perceived.

A Collaborative Approach

The committee sought advice from experts in the field, including representatives from the Institute for Local Government (ILG), the nonprofit research affiliate of the League and the California State Association of Counties. ILG promotes well-informed, ethical, inclusive, effective and responsive local government through innovative resources, tools and programs. The committee relied on one such resource, ILG’s publication Developing a Local Agency Ethics Code: A Process-Oriented Guide, to incorporate best practices and use a collaborative approach.

To promote greater buy-in and legitimacy, the code’s development involved those whose conduct would be guided by it. According to committee member and Council Member Sal Tinajero, “It’s simply not enough to just review other cities’ codes. We called on institutions committed to advancing high ethical standards and practices to learn about the many opportunities and pitfalls organizations face when developing their own code of ethics.” Tinajero added, “It also enabled us to create a code tailored to Santa Ana, specific to the issues we could foresee in our community.”

Santa Ana set out to develop a values-based ethics code built on a list of do’s. Instead of a rules-based code emphasizing the don’ts that duplicate state and local ethics laws, this code would establish a commitment to uphold a standard of integrity and competence beyond that required by law. By going beyond the ethical standards required by law, values-based codes complement ethics laws already on the books and help define how public of ficials should act.

Work-Study Sessions Promote Dialogue

The committee identified several key ethical values and sought input from all appointed board, commission and committee members. Each group held a work-study session to review and suggest additional values, tailored to the City of Santa Ana , that reflected the community’s core values and desired behaviors. Committee members attended each of the work-study sessions to provide background information on the code’s development and help promote an open dialogue.

The committee developed a menu of values and a worksheet listing examples of behaviors that reflect those values. The worksheet served as a tool to assist in the review process and promote meaningful discussion. At the end of each session, each board or commission member placed a dot on the two core values he or she believed should be given the highest level of consideration for inclusion in the initial city code of ethics and conduct. The sessions also included public comment periods for anyone in the community who wished to participate.

The committee reviewed the information collected from the public and analyzed the data received from the board and commission members. Based on areas of consensus, they recommended core values and behaviors to the city council. At a work-study session of their own, the city council and the public provided further input and comments.

Santa Ana Adopts Ethics Code

The committee recommended an im plementation plan and a final proposed resolution that included five core values and expressions of behavior. In June 2008, the City of Santa Ana approved and adopted these core values and expressions of behavior:

  • Integrity and honesty;
  • Responsibility and protecting the public’s interests;
  • Fairness and accountability;
  • Respect for fellow elected or appointed officials and staff; and
  • Public, proper and efficient use of public resources.

As part of the implementation, all elected and appointed officials must certify that they have received a copy of the Code of Ethics and Conduct, understand its provisions and pledge to conduct their duties in accordance with the code. In addition, the ethics code was placed on each commission and board agenda, and each voted to acknowledge its receipt. Upon entering office, new officials are asked to sign the Code of Ethics and Conduct. The code is also incorporated into handbooks, orientation programs and other training efforts, including ethics training required by AB 1234, to further clarify its provisions and application.

Public Input Keeps Code Relevant

In accordance with a values-based ethics code, Santa Ana’s voters are deemed the ultimate judges and enforcers of the Code of Ethics and Conduct. Being part of a ballot measure approved by Santa Ana voters has helped increase public awareness of ethics issues and accountability. Further, the code indicates that elected and appointed officials have a primary responsibility to ensure that ethical standards are understood and met and that constituents can have full confidence in the integrity of their local government. The code is intended as a living docu ment, and periodic review at least every two years will help ensure that it’s an accurate reflection of the community’s values.

“Developing the Code of Ethics and Conduct within the six months required by the charter amendment shows our commitment to fulfill our promise to the voters, which enhanced public trust,” said Council Member Vince Sarmiento. “By establishing an ethics code in Santa Ana that included input from our council and appointed officials, we have clear expectations and guidelines on how to set priorities and address differences, thereby fostering a better overall environment.”

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Patricia E. Healy, at the time of writing, was clerk of the council for the City of Santa Ana. Alma Flores is senior management assistant for the Santa Ana City Manager’s Office and can be reached at AFlores@santa-ana.org.

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