A proposed change to Rochester’s ethics code would clarify when elected and appointed officials are able to offer opinions on development projects.
“This kind of stuff is not at all intuitive,” said Faye Harris, president of Rochester’s Ethical Practices Board.
While a 2009 board opinion ruled that council members, as well as Planning and Zoning Commission members, must refrain from stating an opinion on a request that will eventually involve an official hearing, Rochester City Council member Mark Bransford said Wednesday that the issue isn’t specifically addressed in the city’s ethics code.
“This is a situation where you can really get into trouble,” he told the Ethical Practices Board, adding that during his first two months in office, he’s already had developers and neighbors ask for his opinion on proposed projects.
The issue was at the center of a 2017 ethics complaint Bransford filed against his Ward 2 council predecessor, Michael Wojcik.
In that complaint, he alleged Wojcik crossed the line during meetings with neighbors and others related to the project that became the Berkman Apartments, west of Saint Marys Hospital.
Wojcik denied the allegations, claiming he attended meetings to support constituents, and the ethics board eventually dismissed the complaint, citing a lack of evidence showing any bias in his vote regarding the development.
Lin Gentling, who was a member of the Ethical Practices Board when the 2009 opinion was written, said Wednesday that the opinion clearly allows council members to meet with developers and others in order to collect information regarding proposed developments.
She said the line is only crossed if an opinion is voiced by a council member, who later votes on a formal land-development request.
When the board ruled on Bransford’s complaint in early 2018, Harris said holding the line can be challenging.
"In the end, he's human," she said of Wojcik. "You can't expect someone to have any thoughts about something and give zero hints about what that is."
Bransford said having four new council members this year brings added challenges and he wants to ensure future officials don’t overlook the potential conflict.
“This was just an opinion,” he said of the board’s 2009 ruling. “It was sort of dangling off the end of the code.”
The board unanimously voted to instruct City Attorney Jason Loos to prepare a proposed ethics code change that would incorporate the 2009 opinion.
The board is expected to review the proposal during its April 7 meeting, at which time it could send a recommendation to the city council regarding the change to the code.