County officials may go back to school

In the wake of scandals in San Jose and San Carlos involving government contracts and allegations of misuse of public funds, county supervisors are considering requiring top officials to get ethics training.

The two-hour training session for about 100 people would be administered and paid for by the County Counsel’s Office once every two years. It would include advice on the sometimes sticky topics of conflicts of interest and bribery, gifts, travel reimbursements, financial disclosure, open meetings and records laws and nepotism, according to officials.

After seeing reports of scandals elsewhere on the Peninsula, not to mention so many coming out of Washington D.C., Supervisor Rich Gordon first suggested the training last July. “I just felt it was a good exercise to make sure we are following ‘best practices’ and to reassure our citizens that our local government is transparent,” Gordon said.

San Carlos was taken to task for questionable contracting practices in both 2004 and 2005 in separate Civil Grand Jury reports. More recently, former San Carlos Mayor Mike King become embroiled in a trial — now in the hands of the jury — in which he is alleged to have conspired to commit fraud against the South County Fire Protection Authority. Further south, in San Jose, Mayor Ron Gonzales was unanimously censured by the City Council last December for giving an extra $11 million in labor cost reimbursements to Norcal Waste Systems.

In addition to the training course, two new state laws are also outlined in the proposed ordinance, scheduled to go to supervisors May 2. One law outlines limitations on travel expense and meal reimbursements, the other prohibits high-ranking government officials from taking a position lobbying or working for a company that lobbies government, including cities and the county, for one year after leaving their post.

“In general, itlooks to me like we're pretty up to snuff when it comes to 'best practices,'” Gordon said after reviewing the county counsel's recommendation. Gordon initially proposed appointing an ethics task force, but deferred to his fellow supervisors' preference to have county counsel take the lead to avoid the appearance of impropriety produced by handpicking members of a task force.

Ralph Nobles, a 12-year member of the county Planning Commission and someone who could potentially be required to take the course, said he supports the plan. “I think there have been some problems in the past,” he said, recalling an incident in which he said a former supervisor tried to silence public objections to a major construction project in Redwood City.

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