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Legal Eagles: Ethics education requirements -- is it time for you to renew? 

by League General Counsel Kim Hibbard

In the aftermath of municipal election season, we often receive inquiries about the ethics training requirements for elected officials. The short answer is that ethics training is required to be completed within 12 months of the election and is required every time a municipal governing board member is elected, re-elected or appointed to office.

The General Assembly enacted GS 160A-87 in 2009 as part of ongoing discussions on ethics in government that had previously resulted in state ethics requirements for legislators, member of state boards and commissions, and other public servants. During the 2009 session, there were proposals to extend the complicated state ethics requirements to all local government officials. To avoid that cumbersome and potentially confusing result, the educational requirement was implemented in compromise legislation.

The local government ethics training requirement is an ongoing obligation, triggered by each subsequent re-election or reappointment to office. The statute mandates that each member of the governing body receive a minimum of two clock hours of ethics education within 12 months of the time of their initial election or appointment to the office. Incumbents must repeat the training each time they are re-elected, within 12 months of the re-election. (Those in the middle of a term at the last election need not take the training this year and can wait until after their re-election.)

Officials who serve on a state board or commission may also be covered as public servants under the State Government Ethics Act, which has a separate requirement for ethics training. In those situations, the state ethics training is in addition to the local government ethics training required by GS 160A-87. State training does not count towards the local requirement and vice versa; thus, local elected officials serving on a covered state board or commission must take both.

Note that in 2013, the General Assembly made changes to the ethics requirements applicable to members of local transportation planning groups (MPOs and RPOs). Rather than being covered under the state government ethics provisions, these members are now subject to a set of rules codified in GS 136-200.2(g)-(k) and 136-211(f)-(k). The requirements apply only to members of MPOs and RPOs with voting authority (i.e. transportation advisory committee, or TAC, members); those serving on the technical coordinating committees (TCCs) are not covered unless serving as an alternate or delegate for a TAC member. The statutes include a prohibition on participating in actions that would result in a financial benefit to the member, his or her extended family, or business, and a requirement to file a statement of economic interest with the State Ethics Commission. The law no longer requires members of MPO and RPO TACs to participate in state ethics training as part of their service on those boards; of course, TAC members who are local elected officials must still comply with the local government ethics education requirement.

The law specifies that the mandatory ethics education may be provided by the League, the School of Government, or "other qualified sources at the choice of the governing board." The League and the School collaborate to provide multiple opportunities throughout the year for officials to receive the training. For example, ethics will be offered at each of the five Essentials of Municipal Government/Leadershop courses to be held at various locations around the state from January through March. In May, the School will hold a live webinar, and from June through October, replays of the webinar will be available on demand. The League’s annual conference in October will also feature the training. In the meantime, please feel free to contact a member of the League’s Legal Department with any questions regarding the ethics requirements.