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Journal Times editorial: Codes of conduct shouldn't be used to punish dissent
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Journal Times editorial: Codes of conduct shouldn't be used to punish dissent

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The Racine City Council has adopted of a code of conduct. While we would expect aldermen to conduct themselves honorably, we’re concerned about the code being abused.

The code of conduct has items expected of such a document. For example:

  • Aldermen must refrain from accepting gifts or favors for future benefit of the individual offering the gift or favor.
  • Aldermen must work for the common good of the city and not for private interests.
  • Aldermen should be prepared for council meetings by studying agenda items.
  • Aldermen should refrain from discussing private matters of the council.

The code of conduct prohibits “abusive conduct, personal charges, or verbal attacks upon the character, motives, ethics, or morals of other members” of the council and employees of the city.

The code requires the aldermen to act with respect, pay attention in meetings, and would prohibit someone from continually interrupting or attempting to speak over other alderman.

Alderman Jason Meekma, who had introduced the code of conduct for consideration, addressed the perceived criticism of the code that it would be punitive or would be used to limit the contributions of other aldermen. He said that was not the intent.

Further, the section that caused consternation already existed in state statutes and local ordinances. For example, the section referencing neglect of duty and the consequences, which could lead to expulsion from the council, already exists in state statute.

“This is not something that is new to this document,” he said. “I included it in the document as a reference to the Wisconsin statutes.”

We’ll stipulate that the Code of Conduct is consistent with Wisconsin statutes.

But what does “act with respect” mean?

It seems entirely possible that, in the midst of a serious discussion, one person’s passionate defense of their point of view becomes another person’s disrespectful tone.

We also share the concern raised by Alderman Sam Peete, who said during the Committee of the Whole meeting on Sept. 1 that the Code of Conduct could be misused.

For example, if an alderman “had a beef” with another alderman or an elected official, they might try to use the Code of Conduct against that person.

Alderman John Tate II, chairman of the committee and president of the City Council, responded by noting no actual action could be taken without a majority vote of the committee or council, which would act to keep in check the kind of hypothetical behavior Peete suggested.

But such a process would seem to leave open the possibility that the remainder of the City Council could punish, or even expel, an alderman whose views don’t align with the rest of the Council.

Serious-minded people can have honest disagreements about how to deal with the issues that face the City of Racine, and can feel strongly in the course of those disagreements.

But strong feelings shouldn’t be confused with disrespect. A passionate defense of one’s own point of view should not be construed as a violation of a code of conduct.

We would want any code of conduct to set a high bar for actions considered in violation of the code. Conviction of criminal activity is one such threshold.

We would hope that the members of Racine City Council remember that they ultimately answer not to their fellow aldermen, but to the residents of their respective aldermanic districts.

The voters should remain the final arbiters of an alderman’s conduct.


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