In wake of public censures of elected official, WyCo commissioners debate value of ethics commission

KANSAS CITY, Kan. - In the wake of highly-publicized incidents involving a Wyandotte County politician, Unified Government lawmakers are debating the value of their local ethics commission .

On Thursday, commissioners sparred over the idea of whether the current form of checks and balances is effective, or whether the UG should explore using the state’s ethics commission, like most other cities in Kansas.

The topic is timely because of several stories about Commissioner Tarence Maddox uncovered by 41 Action News.

Over the past year, Maddox was caught on video throwing a temper tantrum at LegoLand , making threats to another driver during a police traffic stop , and throwing around his title at a Kansas City, Kan. gas station .

Those incidents lead to an unprecedented two public censures along with a request to voluntarily resign by April 1 (Maddox opted to remain in office ).

At Thursday’s special session, Maddox questioned the process and how complaints are investigated. He believes the current setup is biased and influenced by local politics.

“If I'm going to sit in this room and listen to someone tell me that this is good government, or that this is some good fossil of work, I'm going to sit here and tell you that I'm a victim of that,” Maddox said.

The ethics administrator and legislative auditor were at the meeting and said the UG’s ethics commission acts completely independently from elected leaders and other government employees.

However, other commissioners also supported exploring the idea of eliminating the ethics administrator, utilizing the state’s ethics commission, and using the saved money to hire a different position.

“Our ethics administrator can't do anything other than issue someone a censure and from my understanding, someone please correct me, you could issue someone 20 censures and that's all that would happen,” Commissioner Ann Murguia said. “I'm trying to raise the standard in Wyandotte County and I think the current system is holding us back”

Commissioner Jim Walters added that it is very tough for ethics commissioners to cast judgment about people they likely know on a personal level in the community.

“I think some people would say it's rather Wyandotte County like to take the position that we should just take care of anything within our own borders and not ask anyone from the outside to look over our shoulders and see how we're doing things,” Walters said.

But Mayor Mark Holland said he “vehemently disagreed” with the idea of eliminating the local ethics oversight.

“If there are other communities in our state that do not have this, they need to get on board,” Holland said. “If the state has 627 other cities that they are looking at, I want to go on record and say that I don't think they are going to pay the level of attention and level of detail that the citizens of this government expect from ethics day in and day out.”

Commissioner Jane Philbrook said the ethics code could use a few tweaks, but she supported keeping things at the local level.

“That’s why this will work. Because you'll keep our feet to the fire and that's what I expect you to do,” she said.

Commissioners also asked for more guidance about getting due process before public censures are issued, when to recuse themselves from votes, and a more clear definition about “prestige of office” in their day-to-day activities.

No decisions were made, but the topic will likely surface at a future public meeting.

Ryan Kath can be reached at ryan.kath@kshb.com. You can follow him on Twitter or connect on Facebook .

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