Ethics and Elections Commission Wayne Barnett, Executive Director
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Appearances matter, too, and several sections of the Ethics Code include a standard which asks what a reasonable person who knows all the facts would believe about a particular action.

For example, if a reasonable person, having knowledge of the facts, could think that a Covered Individual's judgment is impaired because of 1) a personal or business relationship that is not covered under the financial interests provisions of the Code, or 2) a transaction or activity engaged in by the Covered Individual, then the covered Individual must disclose the relationship, transaction, or activity to the appropriate department head and to the SEEC Executive Director.

In another example, if a reasonable person who has all the facts would think that something of value was given to a City official or employee with intent to give or obtain special consideration or influence official action, then the item must be rejected. (The Ethics Code specifically makes exception to campaign contributions which are solicited or received and reported in accordance with applicable law. See the Elections Code site for those rules.)

  1. I'm a City employee. Does the "appearance" standard in the Ethics Code mean that I can be punished for violating the Code whenever it just looks like I am doing something unethical?

    Answer: No, "appearance to a reasonable person" does not mean that you will get in trouble simply because your action raises concerns in an observer. However, you should keep in mind the taxpayer, ratepayer, competing contractor or other concerned observer when you are making a choice that has to do with your work or the people you work with. Whenever you can, you should make the choice that fosters public trust in your integrity.

    The appearance standard encourages employees to see a situation from another's point of view. Employees should ask, "Could someone else think what I am doing is a violation of the Code?"

    Employees, officials, volunteers, and persons on contract to perform work for the City should always be careful not to undercut public confidence in our work. The Ethics Code is the minimum standard. City departments and managers may and often do have more stringent workplace rules and expectations.

  2. I have a close friend that I've traveled with in the past, who wants to compete for a contract that I'll oversee. Does our friendship make me appear too close to him to be able to work on the project?

    Answer: Amendments to the Code in July, 2009 made it no longer necessary to disqualify yourself in every case where there is an appearance that your outside transactions, activities, or relationships might impair your judgment. Instead, the City's value of transparency comes into play.

    If you are not required to disqualify yourself because of a financial interest in the matter (see the FAQs on Financial Interests for more information), then you must disclose in writing to your department head and to the SEEC all the relevant facts, before taking official action, using this Disclosure Form, dowloadable in PDF version or Microsoft Word version, or contact us for assistance.

    After you have put it on the record, you can have a conversation with your supervisors about your situation. Your supervisors can decide that it is best for you not to be involved so that the integrity of the process is not questioned, or your supervisor may decide that management is comfortable with you participating, perhaps subject to some additional management oversight. Either way, what happens is a matter of public record.

See the Ethic Code, SMC 4.16.070, or contact the SEEC for advice.

Last updated August 12, 2010.

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