Three members of Detroit’s Board of Ethics resigned from their positions since the end of April, after its last meeting, leaving the board with four members and just one absence away from not having enough members to hold meetings at all.
The seven-member board composed of volunteers has struggled with vacancies since October 2018. Since then, at least one board position has been vacant.
The Board of Ethics is responsible for investigating complaints against any city employees who may have violated the city’s Ethics Ordinance.
Since January, all of its scheduled meetings have been canceled due to a lack of quorum — a rule requiring a majority of a board to be present to conduct business. All seven positions on the board were full for just about two weeks in April. The board did hold two special meetings in February and April.
The board’s meeting schedule includes 12 monthly meetings, and administrative rules require it to meet at least four times a year. Last year, the board met eight times (see Page 8) for regular meetings and twice for special meetings.
The ethics board is the smallest of the city’s four oversight agencies (which include the Auditor General, Inspector General and the Office of the Ombudsman), but it is tasked with monitoring and promoting an ethical environment across the entire city. The board provides ethics training to all city employees as required by the City Charter and conducts hearings to investigate some claims of unethical behavior like self-dealing or creating conflicts of interest.
Last year, for example, the board issued an opinion (see Page 15) that a former city employee cannot work at a nonprofit that does business with the City of Detroit until at least one year has passed.
The ethics office does have an executive director, Christal Phillips, who was hired by the board to be the executive director last July. She says she and three additional full-time employees are getting work done even though the board hasn’t been meeting frequently.
“My team works every weekday regardless of whether a monthly board meeting can be held,” Phillips said. “We continue to train public servants, investigate complaints, ask questions on requests for advisory opinions and work on administrative items daily.”
When urgent matters need to be discussed by the board, it holds a special meeting.
“If the board does not meet, these matters may be delayed,” Phillips said. “For example, we cannot respond as quickly as we may like to a request for an advisory opinion and hearings may need to be postponed.”
The three members that resigned in May were Urrond Williams, Mario L. Morrow Sr. and Michael Rafferty. Williams served for less than two weeks, Morrow had served since 2019, and Rafferty since October 2020.
“I didn’t feel like I can be around and do my best for the Board of Ethics,” said Rafferty, who sits on other boards and is the president of New Detroit, a racial justice organization. “The reason I’m leaving is honestly, I don’t have the time, the bandwidth to really give to this, acknowledging how much effort is really needed for this to work.”
From April 2021 to July 2022, the board didn’t have an executive director. During that time, Rafferty said a lot of the executive level administrative responsibilities ended up falling on the board or the staff.
“It went so long without a full board that I would be spending so much of my time just trying to get things to launch. In some ways, it feels like a startup,” Rafferty said.
Two of the open board seats need to be filled by City Council. The remaining position is appointed jointly by City Council and the Mayor’s Office.
Councilmember Latisha Johnson’s office told Outlier Media that the Internal Operations Standing Committee anticipates conducting interviews with board member candidates in the next few weeks and plans to fill all three positions in July, before the council goes on recess.
A spokesperson from the Mayor’s Office said it and the standing committee are hoping to fill the vacancies as quickly as possible, but they’re in the process of identifying quality candidates who are willing to do this work for no compensation.