Raleigh recently adopted a new Code of Conduct to regulate the behavior of City Council Members.
I voted against the Code of Conduct. In fact, I was the lone dissenting vote.
In general I agree with much of what is in the document. There is language about treating others with respect and using the manners that most of us learn from an early age – like not interrupting when another person is speaking. In general, the parts of the Code of Conduct that address “how” we behave are fine.
Where I disagree are with parts of the Code of Conduct that discourage or prohibit “what” we can say in public and “with whom” we can associate with in public.
There is language in the code of conduct that discourages even the mere attendance at public meetings. For example, if constituents that I represent have a concern about a rezoning case, I am discouraged from attending a meeting of the Planning Commission to hear the arguments of the case – even if I were to simply sit quietly in the back of the auditorium only to listen.
When a Councilor does speak in public, the Code of Conduct admonishes, “Keep your political support and opinions away from public forums.”
However, it is OK to talk privately with people and express one’s views. For example, the practice of privately meeting with developers and their lobbyists about rezoning cases can continue unimpeded. In fact, some Councilors will call developers to advise them that they can or cannot vote for a rezoning. Sometimes you will hear that a developer has withdrawn a rezoning case. Very often that is because a Councilor has told the developer that he or she doesn’t have the votes.
Fundamentally, the parts of the Code of Conduct that limit with whom one can associate with and what one can say in public are the parts that I disagree with. They are fundamentally in conflict with the First Amendment that prevents government from abridging the right of free speech and the right to assemble in public.
In my opinion, these limitations should be removed from the Code of Conduct.
This is particularly true about rezoning cases. Developers have deep pockets and often the backing of third parties such as large corporations that want to build the next hotel, grocery store, or shopping center. They hire expensive attorneys to represent them and protect their interests. I have seen cases where developers have hired professional public relations firms and professional lobbyists. And these small armies come to the offices of the City Council to meet with Councilors and the Mayor to wage campaigns that can last for a year or more.
In contrast, you the homeowner, cannot afford to compete. Often, the only resource you have is me, your District Councilor, that you voted for to represent you.
And now, by the City’s Code of Conduct, representing you is the one thing I cannot do in public. I fundamentally disagree with these restrictions and that is largely why I voted against the Code of Conduct.
And, now for the disclaimer (as required by the Code of Conduct): “This is the opinion of the individual and not the opinion of the City of Raleigh.”