|City discusses ethics code|
|Written by Don Mann|
|Monday, 07 March 2011 17:03|
Share"I thought it important that we all get on board to understand what the existing structure is in the state of Washington for municipalities with regards to codes of ethics," Woodinville City Attorney Greg Rubstello told the council on Tuesday before he began a PowerPoint presentation.
The issue came to light after a group of Woodinville citizens made allegations of conflict of interest regarding Councilmember Paulette Bauman’s participation in the council vote on downtown zoning code amendments in November.
After disclosing that her parents owned property in the city’s East Frame, Bauman was told by Rubstello that her vote on Ordinance No. 489 was not a violation of city code.
Bauman subsequently voted in the majority of a controversial 4-3 council decision to allow buildings of up to six stories and 150,000 square feet in that downtown district, fueling speculation by those who opposed the decision that she was motivated by self interest. The matter was even taken to Olympia for state review, where the director of the Washington State Executive Ethics board determined that Woodinville’s current code of ethics ordinance did not require Bauman to recuse herself from the vote.
Yet a segment of the city’s citizenry was not apparently satisfied, and publicly called for further council review. It may not be a violation of code, they said, but it remained, to their minds, a conflict of interest.
Rubstello began the discussion Thursday by using three state and one local statutes as points of reference, though it boiled down to Revised Code of Washington (RCW) 42.36 and Woodinville Municipal Code (WMC) 2.36, as the focus became a thinly-veiled referendum on the Bauman controversy.
RCW 42.36, or the Appearance of Fairness Doctrine, "prevents involvement in a regulatory or quasi-judicial decision-making process by a person who is potentially interested or biased in the outcome. If one or more members of a decision-making body have an apparent conflict of interest creating an appearance of unfairness or partiality they cannot participate in a regulatory or quasi-judicial proceeding and decision."
But there was more: "Quasi-judicial actions do not include the legislative actions adopting, amending or revising land use plans or planning documents, or the adoption of area-wide zoning ordinances or a zoning amendment of area-wide significance."
WMC 2.36, the local code written in 1995, applies to all members of city council, city boards and commissions and all city employees and specifies 15 separate kinds of prohibited conducts, including failure to disclose.
"Bauman disclosed, but did not disqualify (herself)," the lawyer said. "She disclosed that her parents owned some property in the area but she didn’t have an ownership interest in the property. There was a question raised about whether she might some day inherit or benefit from that but at the current time did not have a direct financial interest."
Councilmember Jeff Glickman said the conversation had been a long time coming, though it was not about one specific event.
"This particular code section has been abused since the founding of the city," he said.
Glickman went on to say he could think of particular instances where it had been violated before by past council members, mayors, city managers, department heads and city employees.
He quickly moved to "throw out this entire code section and start over again," and Councilmembers Bernie Talmas and Susan Boundy-Sanders were even quicker to second the motion.
Talmas asked Rubstello to provide a comparison of Woodinville’s codes to neighboring cities, which was not the attorney’s role, and Glickman suggested council concentrate on state law rather than another municipality.
"I think (citizens) should expect the same things from us that they expect from state officials, not necessarily the same things they expect from Bellevue."
Councilmember Liz Aspen asked Rubstello if there was anything wrong, or lacking, in Woodinville’s code of ethics.
"I don’t know that’s for me to say," he said.
She asked if the city was leaving itself exposed with anything not
covered in its current statute, and the lawyer said he did not see any
"trouble" with its wording.
Said Aspen: "What I’m hearing from council members is we have to rip this up and start over — that we’re living in a terrible, horrible city because of past council and it’s disturbing to hear the picture being painted of our history and I don’t hold that view."
She added she would not support the motion.
Said Boundy-Sanders: "Lots of politicians get in trouble when they’re voting on issues in which their family has a financial interest. In Woodinville, all that we’re (currently) requiring is that those interests be disclosed." She said that worldwide standards hold that those with a financial interest (in a specific vote) should recuse themselves, adding that was a reasonable standard Woodinville should adopt.
"I’ll be more comfortable with our ethics code when it reflects that more worldwide view of what ethics are. Financial benefits ... I think are more solid thresholds for recusal."
She said she would not support the motion.
Mayor Chuck Price said that if laws got too restrictive, nobody could make a vote. He was in favor of disclosure, something he’s personally done in council votes. But he was wary about stifling power.
"I don’t like putting handcuffs on people because their kids use the
fields," he said. "When you’re in a small town no matter what we do we get a benefit — every road improvement project, every subdivision we allow or disallow ... we get a benefit ... I’m not gonna vote for this."
Talmas, in an about-face, added that he would not vote for the motion, and Glickman, without the requisite votes, withdrew his proposal.
Then Bauman took the floor, saying she did not want to belabor the point.
"Obviously every public official has the responsibility to the citizens to make sure there’s not the appearance of conflict of interest or financial gain," she began. "The concerns citizens bring forward are valid concerns, particularly in the climate of today’s political government."
She said she thoroughly reviewed the statutes so she was clear in her responsibilities but wanted to make some key points, and she repeated an earlier statement that her vote on Ordinance No. 489 was not illegal.
"It was disclosed that I had parents and family members who owned property downtown," she said. "It took 10 months in the process of (the ordinance) for any question to be brought up; it was reviewed by the city attorney several times."
And then she fired back.
"Referring to the city code, there is a provision for reporting a false allegation of impropriety — it’s actually a misdemeanor — for anyone on this council ... to accuse without just cause or factual information."
She said there was a two-fold process.
"We’re not only accountable to disclose potential financial interest ... but there’s also a law ... that protects against false accusations."
It may have been an oblique reference to a fellow council member, who was previously voiceful in his opinion that Bauman recuse herself on 489.
The issue of amending WMC 2.36 will be brought back for a later council agenda.