By John Kanelis
Amarillo, TX (KFDA) - Political acrimony at times can produce constructive reform.
So it has been done, according to Amarillo Mayor Paul Harpole, in describing a recent decision by the Amarillo City Council to write a new code of conduct for its five members.
"There's no doubt that we've entered into a new period of political rancor," Harpole said, alluding to the election this past spring of three new council members and the tension that has flared on occasion between the newest members and the two men -- Harpole and City Councilman Brian Eades -- who were re-elected.
Jarrett Atkinson resigned as city manager after the resignation of City Attorney Marcus Norris and the retirement of Assistant City Manager Vicky Covey. Terry Childers is now serving as interim city manager and, said Harpole, he has noted that "other cities have enacted codes of conduct" for governing council members.
The code of conduct came out of a retreat that City Council members had in which they were able to air their differences and speak "about their concerns," Harpole said.
The conduct policy lays out four essential elements.
It stipulates that council meetings should be conducted with order and decorum and that council members should unite behind a policy once it's enacted; it says council members should treat each other and city staff members with courtesy and respect; council members must refrain from using their positionto obtain special privileges; and council members must not condone illegal or unethical behavior.
"These guidelines will enable us to move ahead in a productive, positive and encouraging way," Harpole predicted. "Look, there are just five of us and we've got to figure out a way to move forward," he added.
Harpole acknowledged that some hard feelings have boiled over since the new council took office after the May election -- and the June runoff to decide who would occupy Place 4 on the City Council.
The provision in the code of conduct calling for unity is meant to address the hard feelings that have surfaced on occasion, Harpole said.
Place 1 Councilman Elisha Demerson, one of the new men elected in May, described the code of conduct as a "baseline for how the council should conduct its business. As with any new group, there is a dynamic that needs to work itself out."
He said that the council had a "bit of a personality that was being manifested" early on. "It got personal," he admitted, "and in order to move forward, we needed a basis of operation."
Demerson agreed with Harpole on the role that Childers played in organizing the council retreat. "The interim city manager saw what we needed and he saw that we needed an opportunity to hammer out a policy and procedure on how we'll operate for the good of the community."
"There are difficult topics to discuss," Harpole said, "so instead of getting into a shouting match, we need to have respect for whoever is sitting in the middle chair." Harpole referred to whomever is mayor -- or who is acting as mayor whenever the mayor is absent.
"We've all agreed as a body that we support the direction the city is going," Harpole said.
What if a council member strays from that policy and challenges openly a decision that the council has made? Harpole didn't argue for any type of formal punishment, but said, "My hope would be that the individual would go to the city manager and talk about it in a civil manner."
Harpole said the Texas Open Meetings Law restricts how he and his council colleagues can communicate with each other. "I cannot talk to two council members at the same," he said, "because then I'd be violating the open meetings law," noting that three members talking among themselves constitute a majority of the governing council. "We only can do that in open meeting," he said.
This is where the city manager fills an important role, Harpole said. "The city manager can become an emissary to pull us together," according to the mayor, adding that Childers is an experienced public administrator who is fully capable of performing that role.
"It's good to codify the relationship that the council has with itself and with city staff," said Place 4 Councilman Mark Nair, another of the new council members. "In the past, I think the city had trouble defining those relationships," he said. "This is like any business, really," he said. "We need a professional way of operating an organization."
Another key provision in the conduct policy deals with council members interfering with administrators' duties.
"It's common when you have exuberant new people who want to get in there and get totally involved," Harpole said. Such enthusiasm, he said, "undermines the city manager's authority."
Harpole added that Atkinson resigned partly because of what he perceived as meddling by some members of the City Council into administrative matters.
The new policy stipulates that council members "cannot talk to city employees without the knowledge and approval of the city manager.
"When you have 2,300 employees working for the city," he said, "you can't believe the ripple effect that's caused when those employees don't know who's in charge.
"I guess we're asking everyone," he said, "to toe the line."
Nair said he is "happy with where we are going as a city. We're going to have fights, but we're going to keep moving forward."
By John Kanelis