How are we to select a Great Falls Ethics Committee?

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Let’s say you needed to find a watchdog because your henhouse was recently raided by some foxes.  Would you go to the local fox den and ask the occupants therein, some with feathers still clinging to their little chins, to select the best watchdog to keep an eye on your cluckers? 

The Great Falls City Commission is accepting applications for a newly created Great Falls Ethics Committee. The deadline is December 15 for applicants to the three-member advisory board. 

So an ethics committee will be appointed by a City Commission which has one member, Tracy Houck, who was found guilty of and fined for violating Montana campaign finance practices. And who later in a separate incident required a hand delivered reprimand and warning from the city attorney for her blatant conflicts of interest surrounding the allocation of taxpayer funds, $29,000 in Community Development Block Grant funds which have been subsequently revoked by the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development due to her self-serving conflicts. 

The very same Houck who also repeatedly lied to the public and press about sending reports to the State’s Commissioner of Political Practices, backdated official documents to avoid accountability for cheating, and attempted to deposit leftover campaign contributions in the bank account of the organization by which she is employed, Paris Gibson Square. 

An ethics committee to be appointed by a City Commission which has another member, Bill Bronson, who has repeatedly voted to allocate taxpayer funds to two separate local organizations, Paris Gibson Square and NeighborWorks Great Falls, organizations which employed his immediate family members. Conduct which has triggered HUD to require an investigation and audit going back three years for which our tax dollars are now paying. 

An ethics committee to be appointed by a City Commission which has another member, Mayor Bob Kelly, who not only has said and done nothing about the misconduct of the commissioners mentioned above but who also served on both the Great Falls Development Authority and NeighborWorks Great Falls boards and then voted to allocate CDBG money to those organizations shortly after resigning from those boards and against explicit HUD policy. 

These are the foxes – oops, I mean folks – who will be selecting our local watchdog ethics committee? A committee which is supposed to serve as an extra layer of transparency and help resolve ethics issues for not only city staff and other appointed boards but for the City Commission and its members. 

In my opinion a better way to select the three members of the Great Falls Ethics Committee would be to either elect the members at large during regular city-wide elections or to have the nine Neighborhood Councils each nominate a candidate from their respective areas and then have the Council of Councils elect the final three. 

Personally I prefer the Neighborhood Council selection method because it emulates a district or ward system of representation (a system I would like to see us adopt for electing our City Commission) and because it gives the Neighborhood Councils some extra heft and responsibility. 

Unfortunately, as I understand it, either of the two alternative systems for selecting an ethics panel I mention above would require a provision to be inserted into the City Charter, which in turn would require a vote of the people during the next municipal election. And to even get such a provision on the ballot would require the City Commission (yes, the same Commission which is about to select an ethics committee) to pass an ordinance or adopt a resolution – or by a referendum petition requiring signatures from at least 20% of the city electorate. Not much hope this City Commissions will choose to do so.  

For now it appears that we’re stuck with the current City Commission making the decision as to who their own watchdog will be. A City Commission with members who have been pelted with numerous conflicts of interest and ethical issues both in appearance and in reality. Again unfortunately, because of this lack of credibility, any Ethics Committee appointed by this City Commission will lack the vital confidence and trust of many local citizens. Including me. 

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