I’ve Just Been Elected (or Re-elected) to Local Public Office – Now What?
By Ruben Duran – The Ethics Advisor
For the Latino Policy Connection
Congratulations, Ms. or Mr. Newly-Elected Public Official, and welcome to the world of local government and public service ethics. This column is a resource for you on ethics laws and hot topics, and we hope it serves you well in your own service to your constituents. Offered monthly, we explore laws and rules meant to strengthen and protect the public’s trust in you and your colleagues as stewards of public monies and the public good. A brief introduction is here in our inaugural message: “No estés chillando, C@#$0n.”
This month, we’ll touch on the major rules and regulations that require your immediate attention as a newly-elected public official.
First, get ready to let the sunshine in! Essentially all local government in California is subject to the State’s open government and transparency laws. These include the Ralph M. Brown Act (covering access to “meetings” of local government bodies), the California Public Records Act (covering access to electronic and physical “records” concerning the public’s – i.e., “your” – business) and the Political Reform Act (covering campaign finance rules and financial conflicts of interest, including public access to certain details about your income and the gifts you receive – and the sources of that income and those gifts). Quickly, here are the essential things to know right away on open government:
- The Brown Act: The public has a right to observe and comment on any discussion or decision you’re a part of that includes a majority (50 percent plus one) or more of your elected body. That means generally every meeting involving three or more of your five-person body (or four or more of a seven-member body, etc.) at which you listen to, discuss or make a decision on a topic related to your entity must take place in a space open to the public — and only after sufficient public notice has been given. And, a meeting need not be only in person; it could be a telephone call or a series of texts or emails. There are exceptions for things like confidential closed sessions to discuss litigation with your attorney or labor union negotiations to provide directions to your negotiators; but even those must follow public notice and an opportunity for the public to comment before you consider them behind closed doors.
- Bottom line: If you’re ever in a group of a majority of your elected body and discussing the public’s business, it had better be in a place open to the public after having given the proper public notice.
- The Political Reform Act: Within 30 days of taking office (and by April 1st every year thereafter), you must file (usually with your city clerk or a comparable office) a Statement of Economic Interests, which is commonly called a “Form 700.” In it, you will publicly disclose many (but not necessarily all) of your “economic interests,” which is money you make, property you own, investments you hold, businesses you manage or lead, and gifts you receive (valued at more than $50, either individually or cumulatively from a single source).
- Additionally, with respect to conflicts of interest, remember that elected officials cannot participate in any discussions or influence any actions in which they have a conflict of interest, even situations where the board member is not directly, personally affected by a decision of the board. For example, if the decision affects a “source of income” – any person or company that provided $1,000 or more to the official within the 12 months of the decision – or any real property within 500 feet of the board member’s property, then there may be a conflict. When the agenda item is called, the conflicted official must publicly identify the conflict and leave the room before the discussion begins; merely abstaining from voting is insufficient.
- The Public Records Act: All governmental records are generally subject to inspection by the public, with limited and narrow exceptions. “Records” include all communications related to public business, regardless of the physical form or characteristics. Public officials should be aware that their emails and texts related to public business — even on their private devices — may be considered a public record subject to mandatory disclosure.
Second, understand that if you’re not already rich, you aren’t going to become rich as a result of being an elected official. The ethics and criminal laws in California, along with the courts, the press and, very often, public opinion, are all clear that public service is supposed to be its own reward. Apart from usually nominal stipends and reimbursement for necessary expenses, you will not be receiving any money for the many hours of work you will put in serving your community. Volunteer leadership is a long and proud tradition in this country going back to the days of the founding fathers, and our laws are written to reinforce the concept that servant leaders serve for the public’s good and benefit, not for their own self-interest and or to receive exorbitant pay, special treatment or “perks” because they are elected officials.
Third, remember important filing deadlines:
- Within 30 days of being sworn in to office: file your Assuming Office Statement – Form 700.
- Within one year of being sworn in: receive AB 1234 Ethics Training if your agency compensates you for your service or reimburses you for your expenses. Note that school districts are not specifically subject to this requirement, though many district do provide or suggest comparable ethics training for school board members.
- By February 1, 2016: file your Semi-Annual Form 460 covering campaign donation receipts for the November 3, 2015 election.
Finally, enjoy the journey. We realize that all this ethics “stuff” might seem overwhelming or even burdensome at times, but understand that we’re all in this together. We hope that you will turn to resources like this blog, the Institute for Local Government and legal counsel whenever you have a question about your ethical duties. In the meantime, we wish you well as you embark on what we hope will be a long, successful and happy career in public life, bringing your own unique perspective and talents to the public arena for all our mutual benefit.
Ruben Duran is a partner in Best Best & Krieger LLP’s Los Angeles office. He has counseled elected officials for nearly 17 years and offers training throughout California on good governance and ethics. A former city attorney, he is a regular speaker for the California Institute for Local Government and serves as the general counsel to the Oxnard Harbor District, which owns and operates the commercial Port of Hueneme.