Councilman Erick Stonebarger brought the issue up in the wake of an incident that occurred during the campaign leading up to the November election. Mayor Bob Taylor appeared at the Hometown Halloween event on Oct. 27, greeting residents and posing for pictures next to a city-owned electric vehicle bearing campaign signs for Taylor’s re-election bid. The use of city property during a political campaign is inappropriate, Stonebarger said, but concise rules about what to do in response were lacking.
“When the city manager and city attorney were advised that he was out there with a city car with his signs draped all over it, it wasn’t certain what we could do about it,” Stonebarger said. “If we had an ethics policy, we don’t know if it was violated, we don’t know if campaign law was violated, we don’t know if city ordinances were violated. It was really frustrating. It put city staff in a terrible position, it put the PD in a terrible position and it doesn’t seem like there’s a way to resolve, identify or punish violations.”
City Manager Paul Eldredge eventually came to the event to ask for the signs’ removal.
Taylor said it had been his practice to appear with a city-owned electric car at the event for each of the last seven years, as hundreds of residents stopped by to chat and take photos of the mayor posing with their trick-or-treaters.
“I didn’t know there was a problem until Paul (Eldredge) walked up and asked me to take the signs off,” “Taylor said. “It was cleaned up within minutes. The last thing the mayor wants to do is be out of compliance. It’s a good thing that gets exposure for Brentwood. I’ve had people bringing their kids for a picture with me for six or seven years – every year since they were born.”
Stonebarger agrees that the mayoral appearance at the event without election signs would have been fine, but thinks Taylor should have been aware that using city property during a campaign was wrong no matter what rules the city did or did not establish.
“At the very least it’s a violation of common sense,” Stonebarger said Wednesday. “If you put that picture (of the car with campaign signs) in front of 100 people, 99 will say it’s wrong.”
According to City Attorney Damien Brower, members of the City Council and top city managers are all required to take an ethics training course every two years. Beyond the rules of City Council meetings, however, no definitive policy is in place to govern the ethical dimension of council members’ actions, the method of reporting possible violations, or the consequences of violations.
Vice Mayor Joel Bryant favored a clear definition of council members’ expected behavior. “This is a policy we need to protect us as a council,” he said. “People expect us to be able to govern ourselves as well as govern the community.”
Councilman Steve Barr also backed the idea of possibly establishing a formal council code of ethics to serve “not as a threat, but more as a rudder.”
Taylor said that although he did not intentionally violate any campaign restrictions, he was in favor of establishing firm guidelines for the future. “This is not a hill to die on,” Taylor said Wednesday. “It was all part of the election process. It’s a lesson learned for everybody. Let’s move on and get a system in place. That’s the way it should be.”
The council appointed Bryant and Stonebarger to a subcommittee to look at council use of city equipment and return to the full council with recommendations. The committee’s purpose is expected to be widened to include other council activities in the near future.