County seeking change in state ethics law

Feb. 03, 2013 @ 11:52 AM

A provision in last year's state budget bill has Rutherford County Commissioners a little concerned.

Part of the bill required that Rural Transportation Planning Organization (RPO) members, whether elected or appointed, are subject to provisions of the State Ethics Law.

The issue comes from part of the state provision that requires lawmakers and candidates for those seats to file financial disclosure forms however, by adding RPOs to the provision, only those elected officials who serve on RPOs will be required to file those forms, not non-elected board members or candidates for those positions.

"No one is saying there should not be ethics guidelines for RPO members," said Carl Classen, Rutherford County manager. "We just feel it should be regulated by the local board."

With that, Rutherford County commissioners are asking state lawmakers for a change that would place RPOs under local ethical guidelines, removing the financial disclosure provision.

RPOs make recommendations on rural transportation issues to the North Carolina Department of Transportation. Those boards have no decision-making ability, leaving that to the state. RPOs are in a different capacity from Metropolitan Transportation Planning Organizations (MPO), which do have decision-making authority on transportation projects.

State Sen. Ralph Hise, R-Spruce Pine, said that there is some history that goes with the reasoning behind adding RPOs to the State Ethics Law.

"Previous history showed that projects were chosen to include certain property owned by RPO members," Hise said. "Those are the kinds of things we're trying to shed light on.

"Those projects need to be in the best interest of the public and not that of a board member that has a property interest."

The State Ethics Law does state that a public servant — which now includes RPO committee members — should not represent the particular interests of his/her employer on the board.

The county contends that most who serve on an RPO are on the board because of their position within local or county government. By applying the State Ethics Law, those appointees would have to abstain from taking part on the board. But, the county believes those individuals are on the boards to begin with.

"There is no substitute for having people serving on these local boards that have the best interest of the public as a priority," Hise said.

However, the question remains as to whether the General Assembly will consider augmenting its statutes to remove RPOs from the State Ethics Law.

"We do have to be careful," said state Rep. Mike Hager, R-Rutherfordton. "I think there is some middle ground on this."