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Council Revisits Drug Testing

Burbank leaders in 1997 rejected the idea of screening themselves, but it has resurfaced.

January 10, 2006|Michelle Keller | Times Staff Writer

The Burbank City Council will decide tonight whether to pursue adoption of a drug-testing policy for elected officials -- a month after former Councilwoman Stacey Jo Murphy pleaded guilty to cocaine possession.

The council will vote on whether to direct the city staff to study the legal and ethical implications of either a voluntary or mandatory testing policy, and if so, to come back with a proposed policy at a subsequent meeting.

Mayor Jef Vander Borght said he supported some type of measure that would make officials more accountable.

"It will give the public the comfort that the members of the council are drug tested," he said.

The vote comes only a few weeks after Murphy, 47, pleaded guilty to federal charges of cocaine possession and child endangerment. Murphy, first elected to the council in 1997, and her boyfriend were arrested last July after authorities searched their home as part of a broader probe of a San Fernando Valley street gang.

Murphy resigned in August. Under a plea agreement, she was placed on five years' probation and required to attend anti-drug and parenting classes.

But some officials downplayed the council's decision to consider a drug-testing policy in the wake of Murphy's case.

"I see it as nonrelated only because I see it from the perspective that we ask all of our employees to undergo drug testing," said Councilman Todd Campbell, "so why shouldn't we require that of our elected officials?"

In 1997, the city considered establishing a voluntary drug-testing policy for council members after reports of alleged drug use by former City Councilwoman Susan Spanos.

At the time, Murphy stated that such a policy "would be a waste of time and money."

Adoption of a voluntary policy was later rejected by the council 3 to 2 on the grounds that "it would have no teeth," said City Atty. Dennis Barlow.

The city was prevented from instituting mandatory drug tests for elected officials because of a 1997 U.S. Supreme Court ruling that such testing without proper cause violated the 4th Amendment.

Other cities have weighed drug testing for city officials, but few have approved policies or kept them for long. In 1999, South El Monte implemented voluntary random drug tests for council members, the first community to do so in California.

The proposal to revisit drug testing for elected officials was suggested to the Burbank City Council in November after several members of the public demanded that such a policy be put in place, said Judie Sarquiz, director of the city's management services department.

One of the issues that came up in 1997 was whether the results of the drug tests should be released to the public. Privacy concerns and possible publication of false test results made some officials queasy about such a policy.

Vander Borght said he fully supported public disclosure of test results.

Because employees across many sectors are subjected to pre-employment drug testing, the question has arisen whether candidates running for office should be tested as well. While the city's attorneys would have to research the issue, Campbell said he would support the idea if it proved to be legal.

"If you're going to run and the policy is adopted, you probably shouldn't shy away from drug testing," he said.

Although drug testing would cost the city money, Vander Borght said it would be worth it.

"I recognize that this is like using a cannonball to kill a fly," he added. "I say this because I have the feeling that we're going at it with a bit of overkill, but if it helps the perception of an anti-drug policy, we might as well be the guinea pigs."

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