By Eric Heinz

San Clemente City Council decided to do away with its 10-year-old ethics policy and will now have ethics complaints handled directly by state agencies and the Orange County District Attorney’s Office.

In a 4-0-1 vote on Tuesday, Jan. 17, with Councilmember Chris Hamm absent, the Council decided to have its ethics policies mirror the state’s laws. But Council also voted to bring the item back for a later meeting.

“There wouldn’t be an official (city) policy for (ethical hearings), but what they would be doing is not getting in the middle of it,” City Attorney Scott Smith said. “They’ll be forwarding on the complaints, and it will not be handled by the Council.”

Smith said ethics complaints that have already been filed with the city but were dismissed could be re-filed with the three departments that will now handle them.

Ethical complaints were handled by the City Council in a hearing where members would conduct an investigation into the matter on the spot. Before 2016, no one on Council or members of the Clerk’s office could remember the last time an ethics violation complaint had been filed against the City Council.

Since January, there have been four ethics complaints against City Council members Chris Hamm, Kathy Ward,  former Mayor Bob Baker and City Manager James Makshanoff. All of the complaints were found to not be ethical violations by the City Council.

City Council also had another option to revise and update its ethics policy to conform to the state’s, a process that could cost about $20,000, according to officials.

Smith said the ethics violations could be heard again by the appropriate agencies, but it depends on what the statute of limitations are for each complaint. The last complaint was heard in December. The city will place on its website the agencies’ policies and the process to file complaints.

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