City Council members need to enact an ethics policy that outlines repercussions for inappropriate behavior — such as drug use or conflicts of interest — and they need to kick start the process of crafting one as soon as possible. 

The need for an ethics policy became apparent after newly-elected Ward 3 Council member Reginald Holman tested positive for marijuana and cocaine on Nov. 21. Holman has denied he used drugs and said it was a false test. But let’s set aside the specifics of Holman’s case, because the lack of an ethics policy isn’t about any specific member or situation but rather the fact that there is no city policy in place that guides or governs the behavior of council members. 

As the city of Ashtabula is a drug-free workplace, it tests council members because they receive a city salary and benefits. If a regular city employee tests positive, they go through a treatment program to get help. But, unlike with employees, there is no proper procedure in place for a city council member who fails a test. In fact, some cities don’t bother drug testing elected officials, likely viewing it as an exercise in futility.

But that doesn’t have to be the case — particularly because we want to hold our elected officials to a higher standard.

Council members have expressed publicly a desire to address the issue and craft an ethics policy. But, thus far, members have taken no formal, public steps to do so, and that should change immediately — though we certainly hope they’re already discussing it behind the scenes. 

Council doesn’t need to wait for a resolution in Holman’s case. Many council members, when contacted by the Star Beacon on the issue of drug testing in general, spoke about the need for council members to be leaders and role models, and we want them to put those words into action. 

And such an ethics policy would and should not be limited to drug use, but should also include things like conflicts of interest or influence peddling. 

There are many legal aspects to explore, such as whether a procedure could be put in place to formally censure a council member or if that would need to be a charter amendment — though it would be one we would wholeheartedly support. So we urge council to put the task to the city solicitor.

Short of a felony or gross malfeasance, Ohio law appears to prevent council from putting any policy in place to remove an elected official and ultimately leaves it up to the voters — who could either launch a recall petition if a council member’s behavior is so egregious or simply vote him or her out of office in the next election. However, it is still important to codify the behavior expected from city council members.

No matter how Holman’s situation ultimately plays out, the initial failed test highlighted a clear gap in current policy. In fact, every municipality should use this as a chance to take stock and make sure it has a strong ethics policy in place, and it is time for Ashtabula City Council to lead the way and rectify this oversight.

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