Skip to main content

The City Journals

Did a Cottonwood Heights employee violate policy at the Utah legislature?

Mar 21, 2019 01:10PM ● By Cassie Goff

Should employees of local cities be involved with policy-making at the legislature? (Cassie Goff/City Journals)

By Cassie Goff | [email protected]

In what capacity are city staff members and elected officials allowed to be involved with creating policy in the legislature? Did a city staff member violate an existing policy about advocating on behalf of the city? These were the questions at the heart of a discussion on Tuesday, March 5, during the Cottonwood Heights City Council meeting. 

Councilmember Tali Bruce referenced the Human Resources Policies and Procedures Manual for Cottonwood Heights, Section 7 (Employee Code of Conduct), paragraph 15 (Political Activity), line E, which states: “an employee shall not use the employee’s title or position while engaging in political activity or otherwise act to imply the city’s approval of a candidate or political issue.”

After outlining the policy, she mentioned a specific recent example. “Chief (Robby) Russo has been up on the hill advocating specific legislation with (Representative) Marie Poulson.” Bruce referenced a recently photographed Poulson standing with Russo in uniform on the stairs of the capitol building. “I don’t remember us as a council advocating, or voting, or even discussing this,” she said. 

City Manager Tim Tingey outlined the city’s current process when working on legislative issues. “We are commenting on bills and giving information to (City Lobbyist) Brian Allen to convey concerns and issues. We are doing that as part of Utah League of Cities and Towns (ULCT) policy.”

“Most of what we do is about local control,” responded Councilmember Christine Mikell. “We are taking a policy position that we have talked about and voted on, and making sure the legislation supports those policies. In areas where we haven’t talked about a specific policy, I feel uncomfortable about that. I tend to agree with Tali. When you see a picture of one of your staff members in the paper, you’re like wait a second, I don’t remember talking about this, maybe we should talk about it.”

Mayor Mike Peterson suggested that the council take a closer look at the policy and re-write it if needed. “This is something we need to talk about and see what parameters we want to set.”

“We can rewrite the policy, but this is how it stands,” Bruce said. “It’s crystal clear and we are definitely in violation.” 

This led to a discussion about communication within the city. 

 “I communicated this in writing,” Tingey said. “I made the council aware of this issue and our work with the chief, and I didn’t get any opposition in that writing at the time it occurred.” 

Councilmember Scott Bracken responded as well. “It was in the council communication, which we are responsible to read and respond to.”

Mikell requested a different medium for that type of communication. “If any of us are going to be testifying on behalf of the city, I think that it shouldn’t be in a memo.” 

“I think there are a couple points here,” Peterson said. “Advocating on behalf of the city and providing technical assistance or information per a request. I’m comfortable with staff participating under the supervision of the city manager if it’s providing technical assistance and information.” 

But Bruce wondered if it was “within the parameters of the city manager to unilaterally make that decision and then just inform us?” 

Bracken said if Russo was given authorization to do so, then it’s not a problem. 

Councilmember Mike Shelton responded to that question of authorization. “This policy prohibits employees using their title or position whether they were authorized or not. We couldn’t even say it’s OK to do that. This policy prohibits them using their title or position to imply the city’s approval of a political issue.” 

After a few minutes of debate between the council members, Russo finally responded, saying he was asked to speak on HB 223. “If I am called as a witness, and I was asked to be a witness in this, then I’m certainly going to appear and answer the questions and present the information they are asking for.” 

“I certainly can go up, out of uniform. I have every right in the world to express my opinion, as does anyone else. In this case, it is a law enforcement issue. It’s an issue I believe is important to the citizens in the city, and in the state in general, so I did support it and I will continue to support it,” said Russo. 

Peterson then questioned, “When you do that, are you representing the city officially or yourself?”

Bruce also asked the question, “When we violate our policy, what is the consequence? I need to know that this policy means something. If nothing comes of this, it’s a clear indication that our policy means nothing.” 

As the discussion turned to chatter, two potential outcomes were discussed. The policy could be put on the agenda for a later city council meeting to discuss. Additionally, in response to the specific case of Russo working with Poulson, “I’ll have to address it because it’s an administrative issue,” said Tingey.