Mar 23, 2021 - News

Des Moines city council weighs new ethics policy

Illustration of the scales of justice with a gavel on one side and stacks of cash on the other.

Illustration: Brendan Lynch/Axios

Des Moines city council is considering an ethics code to prevent conflicts of interest.

Why it matters: Some citizens contend nepotism has eroded government efficiency and cost taxpayers money.

  • The proposed policy could be used to argue for a member’s removal from office.

How it works: Council members would be barred from voting or participating in city discussions when they or their immediate family have a direct or indirect financial interest.

  • They would also be ineligible to apply or accept grants, loans or other financial assistance from the city or an entity that receives financial support from the city.
  • Their involvement would remain off-limits for a year after leaving office.

Exceptions, determined by the city’s deputy city manager, who would act as ethics officer include:

  • Citywide benefit programs, such as tax abatements.
  • Reasonable loans or sales made in the ordinary course of business.
  • Transactions that result in "substantial" increases in city tax base or results in substantial neighborhood improvement.
  • Grants or loans authorized by the council.

The backdrop: Some council members have recently faced criticism about their ties to big projects.

  • Developers of an embattled skyscraper project that resulted in the city paying $42 million for a parking garage are cousins to Councilman Josh Mandelbaum.
  • A nearly $250 million East Village-area project includes the involvement of developer Jim Cownie, a distant cousin to Mayor Frank Cownie.
  • Worth noting: Mandelbaum and Cownie both abstained from voting on those issues — and cousins aren't included in the definition of immediate family anyway.

What's next: Final adoption of the ethics policy will be considered next month.

This story first appeared in the Axios Des Moines newsletter, designed to help readers get smarter, faster on the most consequential news unfolding in their own backyard.


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