SHERIDAN — If an elected official breaks the law, fails to show up at the office or in some other way fails in his or her duties, Wyoming statutes allow for removal of the individual from office. But, if the official is a bully, unethical or just plain inappropriate, there is little outside the voting booth that can be done to stop that behavior or remove the person from office.
Wyoming Rep. Charles Pelkey, D-Laramie, hopes to change that. He is exploring the possibility of proposing legislation that would create an independent ethics review panel for elected officials.
“The panel would do two things, see if the complaint or alleged activity rises to the criminal level and, two, if it’s worthy of a public censure or some kind of sanction,” Pelkey said in an interview with The Sheridan Press. He added that the sanction doesn’t have to mean removal from office.
Pelkey said the review panel would model the one used by the national and state bar associations.
“It would allow people to make complaints and for us to hold elected officials accountable for their behavior and actions,” Pelkey said, adding that right now the proposal is in its early stages and no language has been drafted.
He noted that Wyoming consistently ranks low in terms of how it monitors ethical behavior of elected officials.
According to the Center for Public Integrity, Wyoming was ranked 49th and received an overall F grade in a 2015 integrity report. The report examined public access to information, electoral oversight, ethics enforcement agencies, accountability and several other categories. Of the 13 categories, Wyoming received an F in all but three — legislative accountability, state budget process and internal auditing.
“That doesn’t mean that Wyoming is inherently unethical, but that we’re in a state where we assume everyone knows everyone,” Pelkey said. “But now we’re at a time that we need to set ethical standards and guidelines for independent review.”
Currently, Albany County Attorney Peggy Trent noted, the only statute governing when or how elected officials can be removed from office refers to when “any county officer is guilty of misconduct or malfeasance in office.” The statute goes on to outline absence from the office as a primary example.
“If we have a county official such as a district attorney who has engaged in unbecoming conduct, at what level does it warrant some action against that official?” Trent said. “It is very uncertain. This is a gray area.”
Trent reviewed the recent complaint against Sheridan County Attorney Matt Redle, who admitted to kicking at and throwing a coffee cup at the executive director of a local nonprofit. Trent found that the incident did not warrant criminal charges.
Trent noted that elections are one way to remove an official from office, but those elections can be years out from when inappropriate behavior occurs or comes to light.
Trent said that in her review of Redle’s case, she went above and beyond in examining the process of recourse available for situations like the one in Sheridan County. She noted in her letter to Sheridan County officials that the county has no personnel policy regarding a hostile work environment and there is no state statute prohibiting behavior like Redle’s on Dec. 11. That isn’t commentary typically included in review of a case, she said.
“I knew I had to address his conduct,” Trent said. “I’m saying, ‘There’s issues here.’”
The Sheridan County commissioners said there is little action they can take against a fellow elected official.
Commissioner Steve Maier noted via email that each elected official is autonomous and does not report to the county commissioners. Those officials may or may not choose to have staff participate in human resources training that the county conducts. He added that while those staff are county employees in the sense that their salaries and benefits come from the county budget, they are hired and fired by the elected officials who can create policies of their own.
Commissioner Mike Nickel said if the county can improve on its personnel policies, it will, but other elected officials in the county are under no obligation to follow it. But, at this time, each elected has agreed to adopt the broad Sheridan County personnel policy umbrella that covers state and federal legal issues as well as salary and benefits, Maier said.
“The voters are the court of public opinion,” Commissioner Terry Cram said via email. “It is ultimately up to them to judge, then administer discipline….or chose not to.”