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Editorial — Ethics cases should be investigated independently

During the seemingly endless rounds of meetings, impassioned speeches and community debate about the potential problems and merits of a proposed housing development near Rochester’s Washington Elementary School, about the only thing missing was an accusation that a city council member had violated the city’s code of ethics.

That omission was taken care of last week when businessman Pat Devney filed a complaint against City Council President Dennis Hanson. Devney claimed that Hanson, as an employee of a lumber company that does business with developer Joe Weis, should have recused himself from voting on a variance that cleared the way for Weis to go ahead with his Washington Village project.

From the beginning, the complaint seemed to have little merit and thus was destined to go nowhere. However, we were immediately struck by how the investigation would be conducted.

Article 13.06 of the city’s ethics code reads as follows:

"Any person who violates any provision of this chapter shall be guilty of a misdemeanor. The City Administrator shall monitor compliance with this chapter and shall report all suspected violations to the City Attorney."

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City Administrator Steve Kvenvold thus was assigned to investigate Hanson — who as a member of the Rochester City Council also happens to be Kvenvold’s boss.

Talk about a conflict of interest.

Kvenvold, to his credit, responded appropriately. Details of his investigation unearthed no evidence that Hanson will benefit even indirectly from Weis’ project. Although Hanson is an employee of Kruse Lumber, he has no control over decisions made by the company’s owners. The lumber company did less than $7,000 worth of business with Weis last year.

Furthermore, Kvenvold is seeking a formal review of the ethics code, in part because he clearly wants nothing to do with deciding whether criminal charges are filed against elected officials who could terminate his own employment.

We agree with Kvenvold. As Rochester continues to grow, and as the stakes for developers and business owners get higher, the likelihood of ethics complaints against elected officials will increase. That’s life in the big city.

To avoid all appearance of impropriety, as well as that ugliest of big-city problems — corruption in government — Rochester in the near future will likely need to retain the services of an independent investigator to determine if its elected officials have crossed any ethical lines.

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