Quick Lesson on Ethics Laws. Do You Know The Answers?

Ethics laws can be confusing. Here are a few questions taken from the 2024 League of Cities Planning Commissioner Academy, to help us understand some of the ethics laws set by the California Fair Political Practices Commission and the Ralph M. Brown Act. All elected officials and appointed commissioners are required to complete ethics training.

The California Fair Political Practices Commission, is a five-member independent, non-partisan commission that has primary responsibility for the impartial and effective administration of the Political Reform Act. The Ralph M. Brown Act, a California law that guarantees the public’s right to attend and participate in meetings of local legislative bodies.

Here are five questions to help us better understand a few of our ethics laws:

Correct Answer: #2

#1 – Planning Commissioner A is disqualified from voting on the item. “An individual or an entity from whom the official has received income or promised income aggregating to $500 or more in the previous 12 months, including the official’s community property interest in the income of his or her spouse or registered domestic partner” presents a conflict of interest. Since this Commissioner’s wife works full-time at this bakery, it presents a conflict of interest.

#2 – Planning Commissioner B can vote on the item. Receiving a free breakfast bagel and coffee does not disqualify an elected or commissioner from voting. However, if the voting member received a free breakfast bagel and coffee from the same bakery multiple times within the reporting period totaling more than $590, that would present a conflict of interest.

Note: Gifts totaling $50 or more from a single source within a reporting period must be disclosed on a Form 700.

#3 – Planning Commissioner C may be disqualified from voting on the item. “There is now a presumption that a decision involving property within 500 feet of an official’s property will have a material impact on the official’s interest. For decisions involving property located between 500 and 1,000 feet from the official’s property, whether the decision creates a conflict now depends on a number of factors.” Since Planning Commissioner lives 750 feet of the bakery, it would be best for the Commissioner to check with the City Attorney. Click for more information re: the 500-Foot Rule.

#4 – Planning Commissioner C is disqualified from voting on the item. “A business entity in which the official has an investment of $2,000 or more in which he or she is a director, officer, partner, trustee, employee, or manager” presents a conflict of interest. Lending the owner of the bakery $3,000 exceeds that amount and presents a conflict of interest.

#5 – Planning Commissioner C is disqualified from voting on the item. An official is disqualified from governmental decision if the “financial impact or effect is foreseeable” and is “significant enough to be considered material”, and given the Commissioner owns a business next to the bakery, it could be argued that a financial impact is foreseeable.

California Fair Political Practices Commission
Click for more information on reportable gifts.
Click for more information on gifts, honoraria, travel payments and loans.


Correct Answer: #4

The Brown Act violation first occurs when Commissioner C likes an informative article that Commissioner B shared about two presenters who discuss the Brown Act. AB 992 states that members of a legislative body may not respond directly to any communications posted on the internet by other members of the same legislative body regarding a matter within the jurisdiction of the legislative body. Click for more information re: the Brown Act and social media


Correct Answer: #4

The Brown Act violation first occurs when the Planning Director emails the entire Commission regarding Commissioner A’s concerns.

Answer #5 presents a clear Brown Act violation because the Planning Director has now met with Commissioner B and C to discuss Commissioner A’s concern. Both #4 and #5 are examples of a “hub and spoke” meeting where the Planning Director was the hub, and Commissioners were the spokes, resulting in a majority of the commissioners discussing an item up for a vote outside of the public hearing.

Read: Let The Sunshine In: Your Right to Open Meetings under the Brown Act

Correct Answer: #3

“Closed sessions are meetings conducted in private without the attendance of the public. They are permitted for specific purposes; courts construe the statutory basis for closed sessions narrowly. Generally, to preserve the confidentiality of closed sessions, only essential staff should attend a closed
session. City Manager, Councilmembers, and even service animals, are all allowed to participate in a closed session. Outside counsel representing either party in the litigation are not allowed to attend a closed session meeting.” Source: Lozano Smith, Summary of The Brown Act

Primary Types of Closed Sessions:

  • To instruct negotiators on real property transactions
  • To instruct labor negotiators
  • To discuss “pending litigation” with agency attorneys
  • To consider the appointment, employment, evaluation, discipline, or dismissal of a public employee
  • Employee Complaints or Charges

Correct Answer: #4

The composition of Local Agency Formation Commissions (LAFCOs) varies from county to county. Nearly all LAFCOs are composed of two members from the Board of Supervisors and two members from the city councils in that county. Many commissions also have two members from the independent special districts in that county. In turn, these members select a representative of the general public – an individual who is not seated on any elected body.

Click for more information on Local Agency Formation Commissions