Entertaining ethics? City tries to entice employees

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April 5, 2004 // UPDATED 1:10 pm - April 25, 2007
By: Scott Russell
Scott Russell

In the coming months, every city employee will have to sit and watch a new 26-minute Brave New Workshop Theater video on the city's new ethics code -- and sign an attendance sheet to verify they saw it.

Passed in March 2003, the code defines conflicts of interest, explains limits on accepting gifts, provides guidelines on outside employment and sets out post-employment restrictions.

The ethics code requires all employees to get training within a year of its passage, said Brenda Shepherd, senior consultant for training and development in the city's Human Resources Department.

Mayor R.T. Rybak made ethics reforms a priority. Go to the mayor's home page, www.ci.minneapolis.mn.us/mayor/, and ethics reform is one the major policy initiatives listed.

The city had an ethics policy before. Among the changes, the new code creates an ethics officer position.

Assistant City Attorney Carol Lansing now holds that position and said she spends 10 to 15 percent of her time on ethics issues, working with Human Resources to develop training materials such as the video and answering employee questions, she said.

The new ethics code broadens the definition of the conflict of financial interest to include employees' spouses, domestic partners and dependents, Lansing said. It added a section on nepotism. It clarified procedures for addressing violations.

The new code creates a three-person Ethical Practices Board (still a work in progress) to interpret the code and make disciplinary recommendations, she said. The City Council will receive the first slate of nominees in the next few months.

A year after the City Council adopted it, the city has taken no disciplinary action for ethical lapses, Lansing said. It had one case wherein an employee was hired in violation of the nepotism policy, wherein a new hire had a relative "two levels up" in the organization.

"Human Resources and a department person investigated," Lansing said. "They didn't think there was any manipulation or undue influence. Just because of the relationship -- personal and supervisory -- it wasn't allowed."

The new hire was reassigned to a different area, Lansing said.

Dr. Bill

The city paid Dudley Riggs $6,500 to write a script for the ethics video and put otherwise dry material into palatable form. Dudley Riggs provided performers, and city staff did the videotaping.

The video's shtick centers on talk show host "Dr. Bill," a self-promoting sendup of TV's Dr. Phil. As a running gag, each new person with an ethical dilemma asks Dr. Bill if they can meet Oprah.

Lansing said some people have negative reactions to the new video because they think the city should take ethics more seriously or because they don't like the humor. The city's old ethics video was "talking heads," including the city's Human Resources director, she said.

"We were trying to lighten up the presentation," Lansing said. "It can be a tedious subject."

Dr. Bill's first guest is Planning Commission member Marge Gunderson (namesake of the sheriff in "Fargo" and a bit of an ditz.) She asks Dr. Bill if it would be a conflict of interest for her to vote on a project if she owns stock in one of the companies involved.

As with each participant, the camera cuts to the ethics code's relevant section.

In this case, Gunderson can vote on the project -- as long as her stock holdings are valued under $2,500.

Next up is Chris Farmer, a maintenance foreperson wondering if he can hold a weekend job with a company that also does business with the city.

Dr. Bill says the second job doesn't violate the city's ethics code -- as long as Farmer was not involved with negotiating, developing or managing the city's contract with the company.

The ethics code also says that employees must obtain written permission from his or her department head before accepting outside employment.

The last participant is Raymond Alexander, a building inspector, wondering whether he can accept food or product samples while on the job.

The city's ethics code requires that employees "shall not solicit or accept any gift from an interested person, lobbyist, or principal who has a direct financial interest in a decision that the local official or employee is authorized to make."

The code lists a series of exceptions. For instance, it allows employees to accept "a trinket or memento of insignificant value."

Dr. Bill gives as an example a refrigerator magnet.

The code prohibits employees from getting free food, with one exception: the employee is at a reception or meeting away from the employee's place of work and the employee is making a presentation.