Grand County puts teeth into ethics rules

By Doug McMurdo • The Times-Independent

The Grand County Council in a split vote last week removed ambiguous wording from a rule regarding disclosing whether the public comments council members make are their own opinion or are those of the council as a whole.

Council Member Terry Morse had the issue put on the Nov. 7 agenda following controversy that surfaced after Vice Chair Curtis Wells wrote an opinion piece that was published in a Tooele County newspaper and on Tooele County-based social media sites.

Wells in his letter encouraged Tooele voters not to “make the same mistake” voters allegedly made in Grand County regarding how local government operates. He was also critical of his co-council members, saying only a few are prepared for meetings and carry “the weight.” Wells did not name names in his letter and it was not sent on official Grand County letterhead.

Still, Wells did not make it explicitly clear he was writing as an individual and not officially on behalf of the council. In October, Chair Mary McGann sought council support of a letter she wrote countering Wells’ letter that would be published as a rebuttal.

McGann did not find the support she wanted as nobody recommended approval and the issue died for lack of a motion, but Morse at the October meeting suggested a tweak to the rules guiding public comments was necessary. He followed up and placed the issue on the agenda.

“It’s the ethical thing to do,” said Morse in introducing the item. He said his goal was to clarify the rule, “so we don’t run into this continuing problem.”

The proposed amendment changes a single word: “encourage” to “shall.” In other words, disclosure is now required and is no longer a suggestion.

Wells told Morse he had a problem with the word “shall” in forcing council members to “delineate a personal opinion.” Wells said the proposed policy would violate his First Amendment right to free speech. Wells also suggested the policy would force someone to “devalue” his or her own opinion by being made to disclose the comments they make are personal and do not necessarily come with council support.

Morse pointed out the Constitution affords protections to all Americans.

“When you do this, you’re stepping on my First Amendment rights,” countered Morse. “You can’t speak for me.” Morse advised Wells there are ample published guidelines on ethics he could read. He said shall is clear, while encourage “is a very vague word.”

McGann noted the word “shall” passed legal review and Council Member Jaylyn Hawks said it would be easy to disclose by telling listeners in public settings that the speaker is on the council, but his or her opinion “may not reflect the council’s opinion.”

Morse, McGann, Hawks and Council Member Greg Halliday voted to approve the change. Wells and Council Member Evan Clapper voted nay and Council member Rory Paxman was absent from the meeting.