A New Ethics Law for Local Elected Officials: Codes of Ethics Now Required
Session Law 2009-403 enacts a new statute, G.S. 160A-83, which requires all North Carolina cities, counties, local boards of education, unified governments, sanitary districts, and consolidated city-counties to adopt a resolution or policy containing a code of ethics to guide actions by the governing board members in the performance of their official duties as members of that governing board. It must be adopted on or before January 1, 2011.
The resolution or policy is required to address at least five key responsibilities of board members, responsibilities that reflect concern for ethical principles as well as for the effects of the board members’ decisions on others.
The five areas to be addressed follow. (Emphases and comments added.)
(1) The need to obey all applicable laws regarding official actions taken as a board member.
Comment: For example, the member must honor his or her oath of office, in which the member swore to uphold the constitution and laws.
(2) The need to uphold the integrity and independence of the board member’s office.
Comment: Among other things, this principle requires board members to make decisions that are based on the public good and not on their desires or considerations of special interest.
(3) The need to avoid impropriety in the exercise of the board member’s official duties.
Comment: Recall that board members are to act as “especially responsible citizens,” who are to honor the public trust” as they carry out their duties. Their official actions should be above reproach.
(4) The need to faithfully perform the duties of the office.
Comment: A public official who acts faithfully is one whom others can trust and respect.
(5) The need to conduct the affairs of the governing board in an open and public manner, including complying with all applicable laws governing open meetings and public records.
Comment: A public official who is honest, fair, and caring, and honors the public trust will honor the spirit as well as the letter of the law. He or she will see openness or transparency is an important part of that responsibility.
The statute leaves local boards a good deal of leeway in deciding what their codes will contain, as long as the code addresses the five topics. It may be very detailed, or it may be very general. It may state aspirations towards which the board is striving, or it may purport to prohibit certain board actions. The board may look to model local government codes of ethics for guidance in developing the resolution or policy.
Ethics Education Requirements
S.L. 2009-403 also enacts new G.S. 160A-84, which requires all members of the local governing boards covered by G.S. 160A-83 to receive a minimum of two clock hours of ethics education within 12 months after initial election or appointment to office and again within 12 months after each subsequent election or appointment to office. (For school board members, the ethics education may be included in the 12 clock hours of education that they are required to received annually. G.S. 115C-50(a))
The ethics education is to cover laws and principles that govern conflicts of interest and ethical standards of conduct at the local government level. It may be provided by the N.C. League of Municipalities, the N.C. Association of County Commissioners, the UNC School of Government, or other qualified sources of the board’s choosing. The clerk to each governing board must maintain a record verifying receipt of the ethics education by each board member.
The code of ethics requirements become effective January 1, 2011, and all members of governing boards covered by the act are to receive their initial training to comply with G.S. 160A-84 by that same date. Finally, the act also contains conforming provisions amending the statutes applicable to each of the boards covered by the act.
Practical Help for Local Officials
The School of Government, the League, and the Association plan to make convenient educational opportunities available to local city and county officials to help them meet the requirements of G.S. 160A-84. In addition, a practical guidebook to assist local governments in drafting ethics codes may be prepared, and workshops on code preparation may be offered.
In addition to these resources, the second edition of Ethics, Conflicts and Offices: A Guide for Local Officials, by A. Fleming Bell, II, will be available early next year in plenty of time to help local officials meet the January 1, 2011 deadline. It contains a detailed chapter on codes of ethics as well as a number of examples of codes for both elected and appointed officials.