Contentious new ethics code passes in 2020


By Erin Achenbach, Staff Reporter

One of the most contentious bills passed by the Sunset Hills Board of Aldermen this year instituted a code of ethics that applies to all elected and appointed officials, and uses the board itself as the judging panel when an ethics complaint is filed.

The code passed 5-3 in January, with Ward 3 Aldermen Kurt Krueger and Nathan Lipe, Ward 4 Aldermen Thompson Price and Mark Colombo and Ward 2 Alderman Steve Bersche voting in favor, and Ward 2 Alderman Casey Wong and Ward 1 Aldermen Ann McMunn and Dee Baebler opposed. Krueger lost a bid for re-election in June, and Baebler resigned when she moved out of the city in September.

The ordinance says the “professional and personal conduct of public officials shall be above reproach and shall avoid even the appearance of impropriety. Public officials shall refrain from abusive conduct, personal charges or verbal attacks upon the character or motives of the mayor, other members of the board, commission, committees, city staff and the public.”

The ordinance outlines communication and confidentiality, conflicts of interest, gifts and favors, appearance of private interest, use of public resources, advocacy and others. It also outlines code enforcement, which is self-enforcing.

An ethics code complaint against a public official must be submitted in writing to the city administrator to be given to the city attorney, who determines if the complaint is legally sufficient to send to aldermen for a vote. If the complaint is legally sufficient as deemed by the city attorney, the Board of Aldermen makes the final determination based on majority vote, except for any alderman who is the subject of a complaint.

At the board’s discretion, sanctions may include private or public reprimand or censure and removal or exclusion from leadership positions, governing boards and other official positions or duties. The code does not give the board or mayor the power to remove an elected official from office.

The board first began publicly discussing an ethics code in November 2019 when Colombo asked if the board wanted an ethics committee. The board directed City Attorney Robert E. Jones to write the code.

Colombo said his suggestion was not based on the actions of any alderman, although some board members made vague allusions to unnamed aldermen releasing closed-session material.

“There’s been some bad behavior before, and there was no way to address that in a public way,” said Colombo, adding that he was referring to past administrations. “It might just be public censure or reprimand, but it certainly makes a statement that we’re against the behavior. … Hopefully it’s a tool that never has to be used, but it’s there if needed.”

Baebler asked then-City Administrator Eric Sterman if any instance in city history called for an ethics complaint.

“Is it possible, and evidence hasn’t been provided to me? It’s possible, but … I’d have to say no,” said Sterman, who held his position since July 2016.

Wong, an attorney, called the legislation “vague and subjective” and added that it could lead to selective enforcement: “I think elections every two years is sufficient. I understand a lot of concerns that have been raised, but I think it’s an imprecise document that I think we need more time to vet.”

“This is not managed by an attorney who is familiar with ethics law. There’s no way for an accused to defend him or herself. It doesn’t cover the Sunshine Laws, which I think we could use some training,” said Baebler, explaining why she voted against the measure. “I think this is the most unethical ordinance that’s been brought before the board since 2009,” when Baebler joined the board.

Sunset Hills joins just three other fourth-class cities in Missouri that have an ethics code, including Edmundson in North County, Lake Ozark and Smithville.

Ironically, the first time the ethics code was used to lodge a complaint against a city official came from one of the aldermen who voted against adopting the ethics code. So far, it is the only time the ethics code has been used.

Ahead of the June 2 election, McMunn filed an ethics complaint against Mayor Pat Fribis alleging that the mayor texted threats to McMunn over a neighbor’s yard sign supporting John Stephens, Fribis’ mayoral opponent. According to the complaint filed in May, Fribis texted McMunn in February that she was “shocked” to see a Stephens sign in the neighbor’s yard, citing her fight to keep McMunn’s street Court Drive residential.

McMunn replied that she found Fribis’ text a bit threatening, and Fribis texted back that it was not a threat, but that she was just frustrated. Jones did not find the text messages “legally sufficient” for an ethics violation based on later friendly texts between the two and because Fribis’ statement was directed at McMunn’s neighbor and not McMunn herself.