Citizens criticize city council for immaturity, ‘bickering’ about ethical issues

  • Written by Briana Gerdeman

"Get yourselves a playground guard to handle your next meeting."

"You people need to get a grip."

"I think all seven of you need to get some grown-up shoes on."

"Shame on you."

Citizens bluntly told the city council at last week’s meeting that its discussion of civility and ethics — sparked by an email by one councilmember that other members called "cyberbullying" — was taking time away from more important business while failing to address true ethical issues.

"If you can’t take the heat, get the hell out of the kitchen. This is something that all of you, as elected officials, you have to take both input from your public and from fellow councilmembers," resident Paul Cowles said. "... Get yourselves a playground guard to handle your next meeting."

The council discussed two possible changes — creating a procedure to remove the mayor and deputy mayor from their positions, and amending the city’s Code of Ethics to prohibit "cyberbullying" among councilmembers and require truthfulness. It postponed until January further discussion of removing the mayor and deputy mayor, and continued the process of amending the Code of Ethics.

Several citizens spoke out against removing Mayor Bernie Talmas from his position as mayor, or creating a procedure to remove the mayor and deputy mayor.

Resident Steve Yabroff said Talmas "has gotten Woodinville recognized and respected in important regional forums," and if he were removed, "Woodinville could become the laughingstock of King County."

"Whether it’s current people sitting in those positions or other people in the future sitting in those positions, the ability to simply rip people out is extremely disruptive and destructive to the city, and I view a positive vote on that proposal as a vote against the citizens of the city," Yabroff said. "And I would say, if you vote on it, shame on you."

Deputy Mayor Liz Aspen said the proposed ordinance was not directed at Talmas but was a "housekeeping issue" about general procedures for removing the mayor and deputy mayor.

"If that’s the case, then I request that that decision be tabled and brought back when other, higher priority work plan items are completed," Councilmember Art Pregler suggested. "I understand from the city manager that housekeeping items are discussed in January, right after the election and the new council is seated. That seems to be the appropriate time to address this issue, given that there’s no actual plan to — or interest in — removing the mayor at this time."

Aspen began the discussion of ethics and "workplace bullying" at the July 2 meeting after Councilmember Susan Boundy-Sanders sent an email to citizen groups, supporting James Evans as a candidate for city council and describing Aspen and former mayor Lucy DeYoung in offensive terms.

"James seems to understand that Liz is The Mean Cafeteria Lady, and I’ve told James that Lucy DeYoung is The Evil Bitch-Queen, but Liz and Lucy will be starting NOW to try to pull him over to the Dark Side," Boundy-Sanders wrote in the email.

Two weeks later, Boundy-Sanders sent an apology for her "blunt language" to the original recipients of the email, as well as Aspen, DeYoung, and Councilmember Paulette Bauman.

"Although we disagree widely on policy issues, it was not my intent to personally humiliate these individuals," Boundy-Sanders wrote in her second email. "... That being said, I want to be clear: This apology is intended to show respect for their humanity, not their policy positions or their public demeanor."

Since Boundy-Sanders’ original email discussed a campaign, her behavior as a political candidate would not be governed by the Code of Ethics. But Aspen and Bauman said it’s an example of a "pattern of behavior" that the council needs rules to deal with in the future.

Former city council member Hank Stecker commented at the beginning and end of the meeting, saying that the council was discussing "politics" rather than examining actual ethical issues.

"If you want to have an ethics discussion, please address the entire problem," Stecker said.

"There’s been a lot of misbehavior here, and going after one councilmember about one issue for 20 minutes does not address the misbehavior by a number of people, whether it be at this dais or during elections."

Although the council’s Rules of Procedure already say councilmembers "are strongly encouraged to exercise principles of general decorum in all aspects of their official City conduct," there is no penalty for failing to do so.

"I believe we all try to adhere to that, but apparently there are some who just can’t help them — refrain themselves from making personal attacks constantly," Bauman said. "And there’s no recourse, I guess because it’s protected by free speech." She said the council should add obscenities to the list of behavior that violates decorum, and create a process to censure or discipline councilmembers who repeatedly behave in a distracting or uncooperative way.

City Attorney Greg Rubestello cautioned the council about legal issues associated with both proposals.

"The jurisprudence of this state is rather strong protecting free speech in the political arena and in the campaign arena," he said of the proposed amendments about cyberbullying and truthfulness. Court decisions reflect the idea that "if somebody says something bad about you or you think it’s inaccurate, the remedy is not to try to fine them or get them into trouble, but to talk back. Set the record straight and let the voters, the constituency, decide whether they should remain in office or not."

Boundy-Sanders said the Code of Ethics already has a way to censure councilmembers, and the suggested changes would create a biased censure process.

"That path [in the Code of Ethics] includes actually filing what the complaint is, documenting the complaint, sending it to a hearing examiner, an impartial reviewer, to see whether it has any merit or not," she said. "Then, if the hearing examiner does find it has merit, there are remedies that can vary from felony charges, misdemeanor charges, reprimand or censure, or dismissal ... What we’re setting ourselves up for here is to have the accusers be judge and jury."

Talmas said the council shouldn’t deal with censuring councilmembers’ behavior, and added about the email that he "had no idea about it until after it was sent out, and I expressed my disapproval to the author immediately upon learning about it."

The council passed the motion to have the city staff draft language to add to the Rules of Procedure for a censure process for repeatedly violating the decorum principles.

Aspen, Bauman and Councilmember Scott Hageman voted yes; Talmas and Boundy-Sanders voted no. Pregler and Councilmember Les Rubstello abstained.

"I’m not in favor of cyberbullying, but my concern is that Woodinville has an awful lot of issues on its plate, and when it gets down to business, the council does a great job," resident Tina Stewart said at the beginning of the meeting. "...We would all really appreciate if you dropped some of the bickering and stopped this rush to impose new rules on how to appoint or de-appoint mayors and deputy mayors, and simply went on with the city business."

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