Conflict of Interest: City of Johnson City adopted its own ethics code in 2007

Zach Vance • Updated Sep 25, 2018 at 5:53 PM

On June 29, 2007, the Johnson City Commission voted to officially adopted its own “code of ethics,” as required by the Tennessee General Assembly’s passage of the Comprehensive Governmental Ethics Reform Act of 2006. 

The ethics policy pertains to all city of Johnson City, Johnson City Housing Authority and BrightRidge full-time and part-time employees, as well as all elected and appoint officials, regardless of whether they are compensated or not. 

While many municipalities already had ordinances relating to ethical standards, the 2006 legislation required inclusion of specific language to address gift giving and personal interest disclosures.

In a 2009 report, titled “Municipalities Required to Adopt Codes of Ethics,” University of Tennessee Municipal Technical Advisory Service legal consultant Dennis Huffer wrote about why cities were advised against using existing ordinances to satisfy the new law. 

“The question probably will arise whether municipalities can simply send the Ethics Commission a copy of their existing ordinances that prohibit gifts, using a position for personal gain, etc., and thus satisfy this new law. In most cases this will not be adequate,” Huffer wrote. 

“Although most cities already have ordinances that are more restrictive on receiving gifts and other things of value than those required by the act, most do not meet the disclosure requirement of personal interests. This is perhaps because there is a state law requiring these disclosures for elected officials (TCA §§ 8-50-501 et seq.), and municipal officials have seen no need to expand on this law.”

Johnson City’s ethics code expressly prevents any official or employee from receiving — indirectly or directly — any gift, money, gratuity or favor from anyone other than the municipality. This section specifically applies to gifts received “that might reasonably be interpreted as an attempt to influence his/her action or reward him/her for past action.”

However, the ordinance does define a process for reporting gifts that have a cumulative value over $50. Those receiving such a gift must file a statement to the city manager’s office describing what the gift is, who gave the gift, the date it was received and cumulative value. 

Campaign contributions, as well as “personal gifts” to an official or employee for birthdays, anniversaries, holidays or retirement, are exempt from the city’s Code of Ethics. 

The second part required by the 2006 act creates a process for officials and employees to disclose personal interests that might affect their decision-making. 

As defined in the city’s Code of Ethics, a personal interest includes any official or employee’s financial interests, ownership interests or employment interests, as well as their spouse, parents, stepparents, grandparents, siblings, children or stepchildren. 

Before voting on a measure that might involve a personal interest or lead a “reasonable person” to infer a personal interest might affect a vote, an official can choose to either recuse themselves or disclose those interests. 

Johnson City’s policy also addresses the use of a position to make purchases, outside employment, use of municipal time and facilities and use of information. 

Per the policy, City Attorney Jim Epps IV, is designated as the “ethics officer” of Johnson City, meaning he can provide advisory oral and written opinions related to the code of ethics. 

Depending on who a complaint is lodged against, the city attorney, city manger and mayor, unless one of them is involved, will typically review the complaint and determine whether it should be considered by the full City Commission.

Once before the City Commission, it can decide whether the complaint has merit, does not have merit, or has sufficient merit to warrant further investigation, conducted by the city attorney or another individual chosen by the commission. 

Violators of the policy will be subject to disciplinary action and “censure” by the governing body. 








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