From The Delaware Gazette:
Hanks hears back from Ohio Ethics Commission
Thursday, September 17, 2009
By ANDREW TOBIAS
Delaware County Commissioner Todd Hanks’ employment for a private engineering firm is theoretically legal, as long as he does not use his influence as a commissioner to benefit the company, according to a newly released legal opinion from the Ohio Ethics Commission.
Hanks has been employed by CEC since shortly after being appointed to the county commissioners board in January. His part-time, $50,000 a year job is to develop professional contacts and refer them to CEC. He is paid a commission based on actual work that is performed as a result of his reference.
Hanks asked the OEC for an opinion a few weeks after he began working for CEC. He said the OEC’s opinion echoed an opinion from the county prosecutor’s office that said the CEC job and his job as a commissioner were compatible. Hanks has also abstainedfrom votes regarding CEC work.
“(The opinion indicates) I’ve been doing everything legal and above board since day one,” he said.
However, Hanks’ actions since taking a job with CEC raises questions, multiple legal sources have told the Gazette.
Hanks in May invited employees from CEC to two development meetings between county officials, Village of Sunbury officials and a Sunbury landowner. At the meeting, county economic development director Gus Comstock said he would guide Sunbury through the process, and said he would see if the county could contribute money to the project. Hanks brought CEC employees to the meeting. He said he was trying to find them business with the landowner.
Neither the Sunbury officials nor the landowner knew Hanks worked for CEC, and a sign-in sheet at the second meeting shows Hanks signed in as a Delaware County commissioner.
The advisory opinion released by the OEC this month states that public officials are “prohibited from approaching other public officials or employees, while engaged in his official duties, to discuss the services that his private employer can provide.”
Ethics law requires elected officials with private jobs to make it clear whom they are representing, particularly in settings where that may be unclear. Hanks must also avoid representing CEC in any manner before any county agency, and avoid taking part in any discussions or votes that would affect CEC in any way, the opinion states. These restrictions apply to deliberations in public meetings as well as in non-public sessions.
Since Hanks asked for the opinion in February, the OEC’s response only addresses his employment in generalities, and not any actions he may have taken subsequently, the opinion states.
Larry Long, the executive director of the County Commissioners Association of Ohio, said it is not uncommon for county commissioners to hold outside employment, especially in more rural counties.
Long said he tells county commissioners to err on the side of caution and to stay away if discussions between public entities even remotely involve their private employers.
“You have to be ultra, ultra careful,” Long said. “Not only with ethics law, but there’s also the issue of perception, which is just as important to the public.”
Geoffrey Mearns, dean of Cleveland State University’s Marshall College of Law, agreed that the court of public opinion may not look kindly upon Hanks’ employment.
Mearns said while it wasn’t possible to determine whether or not Hanks violated ethics law without more information, he called Hanks’ activities at the Sunbury meeting “ troubling and problematic.”
“We should hold our public officials to a higher ethical standard than “Is this conduct illegal?” he said.
A commissioner’s high profile would make it difficult to distinguish when they are representing the county or when they are representing their private entity, particularly at a meeting with county officials, Mearns said.
“It’s not as if you come to one of those meetings and you put on your (consulting) hat,” he said. “County people know that you’re going to be sitting with them in a budget meeting.
A phone message left with a CEC office manager was not returned as of press time.