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Ethics rules changes considered for KC leaders, employees

Updated: 2013-04-14T23:31:59Z

By MIKE HENDRICKS

The Kansas City Star

Free meals and other gifts received by Kansas City elected leaders and city employees would be subject to new limits and greater transparency under proposed ethics rules.

Those are just some of the recommendations of a seven-member committee that Mayor Sly James appointed soon after he was elected in 2011.

Taking office following the tumultuous administration of one-term Mayor Mark Funkhouser, James took steps to restore confidence in city government by appointing the “blue-ribbon” citizen committee.

Now, nearly two years later, the City Council is finally working through the committee’s suggestions with an eye toward revising the current ethics policies and possibly creating a new position, ethics compliance officer, to help the city’s ethics commission in investigations of possible abuses.

The council met over lunch for two hours last week to discuss proposed new language concerning conflicts of interest, travel expenses and gift reporting.

The proposed gift rules frustrated some council members, who are treated to meals and tickets often and trips out of town occasionally. Currently, they must disclose all gifts over $200, but there is no limit on the size of those gifts. The reforms would lower the reporting requirement to $50 and set gift limits at $3,000.

Councilwoman Melba Curls objected to the $50 limit, saying she thinks it would be a burden to report every gift she receives over that amount.

“I’m not being secretive,” she said, “but I don’t think I should have to explain everything.”

City employees would also see the reporting requirements lowered. They now can accept gifts up to $200, which is also the level when they have to disclose that to higher-ups. The new rules would keep the gift limit the same, but they’d have to report all gifts over $50.

City Manager Troy Schulte said he supports the change so he knows if someone who deals with city contractors might be in danger of being influenced in his or her decision-making.

City Councilwoman Cindy Circo said she worries that the tone of the suggestions might give the impression that the current crop of city leaders is being less than ethical “when that’s not really true.”

But without mentioning specific instances where past council members have been indicted for bribery and other crimes, she said, “There have been plenty of moments in time in Kansas City where corruption was an issue.”

Some council members said the conflict-of-interest rules’ broad wording might make it difficult to represent constituents.

The suggestions now go to the council’s Finance, Audit and Ethics Committee for more review.

To reach Mike Hendricks, call 816-234-4738, or send email to mhendricks@kcstar.com.

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