Committee mulls ethics policy following ‘unwelcome’ text from one councilor to another

The Newton Programs and Services Committee discussed potentially adding an ethics oversight process to City Council following Ward 6 Councilor Brenda Noel’s claims that she received inappropriate text messages from a City Council colleague.

“I have never been in such a misogynistic environment than on this City Council,” Noel said during the meeting.

Noel submitted screenshots of the text messages to the City Council docket for discussion. Ward 8 Councilor-at-Large Rick Lipof later admitted to sending the texts in a memo to colleagues. 

“I owe you a drink,” Lipof said in the text messages. “A dinner. A foot massage. OK. The foot massage sounds creepy but it’s always [what] my wife wants.”

Noel told The Heights that after the incident, which occurred during a Nov. 20 City Council meeting, she attempted to report the issue and was frustrated by the City Council’s lack of structure for oversight.

“I think there’s got to be a place for people to go for oversight when they experience these things,” Noel said. “You know, right now … there’s nothing to be done if you’re the recipient of an unwanted or unwelcomed or explicit communications.”

Noel said that Lipof had been unprofessional toward her before, saying that he had given her unsolicited suggestions about City Council issues.

“If you read [the messages], how it starts is that he’s telling me what I should or shouldn’t say,” Noel said. “So it is definitely not the first time I’ve received a directive from him about my tenor or tone on the council floor.”

In her letter to City Council, Noel requested that an ethics amendment be put in place following this incident. The City Council’s Programs and Services Committee discussed the potential amendment on Wednesday.

“It is my intention by docketing this discussion item that we can begin the conversation to establish a set of standards by which we conduct business that is more in line with what you might expect in professional settings,” Noel said in the letter.

Lipof apologized for his actions in a letter to his fellow city council members and co-sponsored the ethics code docket item referred to the Programs and Services Committee.

“I feel terrible that my texts made my colleague feel uncomfortable and for that I have apologized,” Lipof wrote in the memo shared with The Heights. “I missed the mark but have learned from this.”

During the meeting, committee members discussed options for an oversight process that would hold council members accountable for unprofessional actions. Among these suggestions was a change in City Council rules or a charter that would grant oversight abilities to the council.

“That is 100 percent within our authority to change [City Council] rules, assuming that they’re changed within the bounds of state law,” Ward 4 Councilor-at-Large Joshua Krintzman said.

Susan Albright, Ward 2 councilor-at-large, said that the council could have a designated committee to handle behavior and conduct issues.

“Our rules could specify that we have an ethics committee that could be the place where issues are brought,” Albright said. “I think just to have another set of eyes on issues is an important factor at setting a standard of expectations for how people should behave.”

Albright echoed the need for some sort of code of conduct for city councilors.

“I really do think it’s time to have a set of rules … about standards of behavior, not just the one that counselor Noel raised with us, but all kinds of things that I’ve seen over the last several years,” Albright said.

Because it was its final meeting of the year, the Programs and Services Committee tabled the ethics docket item. Krintzman, who is chair of the committee, expressed intention to pick the item up again for discussion next term.

The current City Council term ends with the calendar year. Noel did not seek reelection. Lipof ran unopposed and will begin a new two-year term in January. 

“I would like to see us move on this as soon as possible after the new council starts,” Krintzman said.