The Billings City Council recently eliminated the Ethics Commission. The commission volunteers were to hear concerns about the city council members and city administrator.
The dissolving of the commission by the council was to clear up problems with state law. State law requires residents with concerns about council members to go to the county prosecutor. The county prosecutor has the power to investigate and build a case, if he or she finds evidence of a violation. The residents commission did not have the power to investigate like a prosecutor or the build a case, or ask for evidence that might be used for a prosecution. They could only recommend if a concern should be brought to the prosecutor. Without the power to build a case, gather documents and take testimony, their recommendations were not well founded.
The dissolving of the commission cleared the problem of a commission without any power and eliminated an ordinance that was problematic, but it does leave Billings with only a county prosecutor avenue for concerns. Some people may feel reluctant to bring a concern to the prosecutor. Maybe they feel their concern is not important enough for that process, or their concern is more a question, or they do not know if it is an ethics question. There are many ways that a prosecutor would not be the appropriate place to seek information or express a concern.
I will support a process for residents to bring forward concerns without involving the county prosecutor’s office. A phone number that any resident could call that would be recorded so they could get a question answered or be directed to the correct process for a complaint. Residents deserve several different means to have concerns addressed. A legal formal process is required by state law, but a softer approach for a concern should be available also. I will work to find a process for a resident to have questions answered and concerns to be address readily and easily.