10/26/09 — Duplin targeting new rules on ethics

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Duplin targeting new rules on ethics

By Catharin Shepard
Published in News on October 26, 2009 1:46 PM

KENANSVILLE -- Duplin County officials sought input recently on how to comply with a new state law requiring local politicians to brush up on their ethics.

House Bill 1452 passed the North Carolina General Assembly and was signed into law by Gov. Beverly Perdue this summer, changing the way local governments approach ethics and ethics training.

Under the new law, all cities, counties, local boards of education, unified governments, sanitary districts and consolidated city-counties must attend ethics training. Local governments are also required to adopt a code of ethics for the governing board.

The Duplin County Board of Commissioners heard a presentation Oct. 19 from Gary Ange, former ethics compliance specialist for international pharmaceutical corporation Abbott Labs. Ange briefed the county commissioners on ethics policy and its purpose and role in an organization. The code is important, but for reasons they might not immediately consider, Ange said.

"This code is not about how county commissioners act. My main plea to you today is, it's not about you," he said.

Ange, who moved to Duplin County just two months ago, told the board some of the things he learned during his decade of work with ethics compliance for the company.

"You as board members need this code to fall back on. I think you all need to have input on this code," he said. "You all need to be held accountable to this place to make Duplin a workable workplace."

They must also hold county employees accountable, he said.

But more might be at stake than compliance with the law, Ange said. The code of ethics the commissioners must draft and vote on could have long-range implications in the future of Duplin County's industrial development and economic health.

"The decisions (of) this ethical code will determine whether you survive," Ange said.

He also gave the commissioners a few ideas on how to formulate a successful code. It should be value-based, not rule-based, and include a disclosure program to allow government employees to report wrongdoing. The process must be a "two-way communication tool for employees," he said.

"Believe me, your county employees know more about what goes on than you do," Ange said. "... The gift is trust, and that's all we have. The six of you will have to safeguard that trust."

The code must be written with the county's employees needs and trust in mind, and the county's policies and procedures should be adapted as necessary to follow the code, he said. And the commissioners themselves could find that a well-written ethics code would make their decision-making process a bit easier.

"It is a big deal," he said. "We must take a positive stand on this code, the county commissioners must address this issue with energy and vigor and want to push it downward."

Some Duplin County commissioners have already completed ethics training, County Manager Mike Aldridge said. Commissioners David Fussell and Chairman Cary Turner have received the certification of having attended the training, and Commissioner Zettie Williams reported she has attended the training as well. The training itself is largely focused on making officials aware of the statute's guidelines and the do's and don'ts of ethics, Aldridge said.

Because the bill is still fairly new, organizations are still working out ways to offer the required ethics training.

"That's kind of developing now, since this is a new bill and there is some time to participate in the training," Aldridge said.

The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill School of Government and the North Carolina Association of County Commissioners will likely be offering the training in the future, he said.

County attorney Wendy Sivori has already drafted a code of ethics, but after hearing Ange's presentation, the commissioners will seek a more tailored approach to the code.

"I had thought the board would adopt the draft, but it didn't seem appropriate that the board would move ahead without considering the comments he made," Aldridge said. "You don't need to just check it off saying you've met the requirements of the statutes. It needs to be checked out top to bottom."

It will be up to the board to decide "how far and broad they want it," he said.

Local governments have until Jan. 1, 2011, to approve a code of ethics for their governing body.