The city attorney is defending Raleigh’s new City Council code of conduct following complaints that it violates council members’ rights to free speech.
The City Council last month voted 7-1 to adopt a code of conduct that aims to limit council members’ contact with city staff and advisory boards where residents are expected to work independently. Councilman David Cox, who represents Northeast Raleigh, voted against the code because he thinks it unfairly and unnecessarily hampers councilors’ ability to inform the public about important issues.
Cox released a statement afterward, saying the code’s stipulations are “fundamentally in conflict with the First Amendment that prevents government from abridging the right of free speech and the right to assemble in public.”
The code discourages council members from attending meetings of city staff and boards – Raleigh has more than 20 of them – unless invited or revealing their opinions about upcoming votes until after the council holds a hearing. It also prohibits them from airing their political opinions at city events.
The code warns that the council could vote to censure one of its members for repeated violations. But City Attorney Tom McCormick says the code is “an aspirational document” that contains a statement indicating that it is not an attempt to curb the free speech rights of any council member. He referred to punishments outlined in the code as “baby teeth” that mainly apply to how the council members behave at council meetings.
“It does not prohibit anyone going to meetings or speaking,” McCormick said. “It does attempt to point out some of the potentially deleterious effects some of those actions might have.”
Cox has attended planning commission meetings and recently drew criticism from a member of the Citizen Engagement Task Force for emailing a recommendation. But Mayor Nancy McFarlane said the policy isn’t a reaction to something any particular council member has done. It’s meant to preserve the integrity of Raleigh's advisory groups by protecting them from the influence of city politicians.
Raleigh leaders launched their effort to craft a code of conduct in July when they created a committee led by former councilman Wayne Maiorano, who works as an attorney. The committee reviewed codes of conduct in other North Carolina cities and consulted former elected officials, as well as the National Association of Corporate Directors and the UNC-Chapel Hill School of Government for advice before submitting its draft to the council on Feb. 7, Maiorano said.
Experts said the council members should avoid speaking up at boards and commissions to avoid the risk or perception of influence, he said.
“These folks need to not have any distractions or disruptions,” Maiorano said in an interview. “Where (council members) most effectively engage is at the council table.”
Though Cox was the only council member to vote against the code, he’s not the only member who has problems with it. Like Cox, Russ Stephenson said he’s worried that the code creates an unfair lobbying environment where developers are allowed to lobby residents to support proposed projects but council members are discouraged from attending board meetings – like those held by the planning commission – and voicing their own opinion.
Some Raleigh residents share Stephenson’s concern. Vickie Crenshaw, who lives in Cox’s district, notes that the code doesn’t limit developers’ contact with city staff the way it does with council members.
“At a time when citizens are encouraged to get involved in community matters, I think conversations with district councilors are more necessary than ever before,” Crenshaw said. “Yet the protocol established by this new alignment, combined with the prohibitions forced on councilors’ conduct at public events on all items under review by Council, seem to represent dictatorial government practices.”
Tim Niles, who lives in councilman Dickie Thompson’s district, says the code hurts the council’s goal of being transparent.
“The Code of Conduct admonishes members of council not to express an opinion to citizens at public events on items that will be coming before the council,” Niles said. “At the same time, councilors are not discouraged from expressing their opinions behind closed doors to developers and their advocates.”