By Meghan Christian
The City of Flint Ethics and Accountability Board (EAB) has made some progress getting organized since it first convened in August, but the body still has yet to appoint an ombudsperson, one of the conditions outlined in the new city charter. During their last meeting Sept. 25, members provided updates on tasks they have been working on and discussed how to proceed to hire the City’s ombudsperson.
The EAB is a requirement of the charter adopted by voters in August, 2017 by a 2-1 vote and which was to have taken effect in January. The charter calls for 11 members, comprised of one member from each ward and two members appointed by the mayor. Terms on the board are staggered, meaning each of the 11 members serve a different number of years, to ensure that there is always someone on the board with experience.
The board’s main functions include appointing an ombudsperson and hearing resident concerns. The board is empowered to hold public servants accountable per the ethical standards outlined in the charter. This power manifests in various ways, outlined in the charter, from calling hearings to subpoena powers, should it be necessary.
Not onlined in the charter, however, are the bylaws which will govern the EAB, certain aspects of the EAB’s budget, and the specifics on how the EAB should go about hiring an ombudsperson. Fourth Ward appointee Nicholas D’Aigle, an attorney by profession, was assigned to work on the board’s bylaws and Ninth Ward appointee Eric Roebuck, a student at UM-Flint, reported on the budget so far.
D’Aigle gave an overview of the work he’s done so far on the bylaws, referencing the Detroit Ethics Board as a model. Mayoral appointee and member-at-large Loyce Driskell raised a concern that the EAB’s bylaws would look too similar to Detroit’s and not reflect the unique issues faced by Flint. “It’s nice to know what they’re doing, but that’s Detroit and this is Flint,” Driskell said.
“We did say we were going to tailor that information to fit Flint,” Third Ward appointee Linda Boose said.
“My whole intent with that was to get a framework together to get 11 sets of eyes on,” D’Aigle said, assuring his colleagues that they would get an opportunity to look over the bylaws and then edit together.
According to Eighth Ward appointee and Interim Chair John Daly, the EAB has more than one hurdle in terms of their budget. From a discussion he had with Chief Financial Officer Hughey Newsome, Daly reported that the EAB must first establish a line of activity in the budget.
“Even if someone was willing to give us money, there’s no place to put it in the budget, there’s no line in the budget that would be there,” Daly said. He then discussed the $250,000 line item in the City’s budget that was reserved for the Office of the Ombudsperson. According to Daly, Newsome says that money is reserved for the Ombudsperson, but Daly believes that it “is to be reserved for expenses related to the ombudsperson.”
The EAB also touched on what kinds of things they thought were necessary for them to function. These included: an office space for them to work and meet that was removed from City Hall, at least one part-time clerical employee, equipment necessary for that person to work, general office supplies, and board member trainings.
“As far as very basic numbers, it’s coming out to about $150,000,” Roebuck said. “It very quickly added up,” he added.
“We’ll have to do some exploration… How the City budgets and covers those, I don’t know,” Daly said. “Before we can really seriously get into a discussion about a budget, we’ve got to get the activity for the Ethics and Accountability Board established. Then the other things is…the City has got to come up with a reasonable plan on how this money gets spent, who has the authority to spend this money,” he added.
First Ward Councilperson and Finance Chair for Flint City Council Eric Mays addressed the EAB and referenced these as reasons why he had been against the formation of the board so soon. However, he did offer his help.
“As finance chair, if y’all want an agenda on the next finance committee meeting, where we can pass a resolution to do all things necessary to set up that account, that’s easy…and we’ll put it on the agenda when you want it on the agenda,” Mays said.
Hiring an Ombudsperson
While all members of the EAB could agree that hiring an ombudsperson soon is absolutely vital, how to go about the process took more discussion. Some members, including mayoral appointee and member-at-large Art Evans and Boose, thought that it would be all right to use the job site already in place by the City’s HR department, especially because it would save money. “I just wonder if that money could be better spent,” Evans said.
However others, including Roebuck, thought that an outside recruiting agency might be a better option. “We’re talking about someone who is going to be making a lot of money and dealing with serious issues, I want the right person,” Roebuck said. “Spending the right amount of money to get the right person is sometimes worth it,” he added.
Ultimately, the EAB decided to start by using the City’s pre-exisiting site and then moving to an outside source should the first search not provide what the EAB considers a fit candidate.
Residents are welcome to attend EAB meetings, which offers an opportunity to speak. The next meeting will be at 7 p.m. on Oct. 9 in the front City Council Committee Room located on the third floor of City Hall.
EVM Managing Editor Meghan Christian can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.