After being the subject of much discussion as a potential agenda item over multiple Bainbridge Island City Council meetings in recent weeks, the future of the Ethics Board took center stage at the latter stages of August 10 business meeting.
Passionate debate centered on a pair of proposed changes put forward by Deputy Mayor Michael Pollock which boiled down to two main issues:
- Whether the current system should continue, or if the board should be disbanded and a hearing examiner put in its place.
- Whether Article I of the City of Bainbridge Island Code of Conduct and Ethics Program should be deleted entirely.
Deputy Mayor Pollock, Mayor Rasham Nassar, and Councilmember Brenda Fantroy-Johnson and were united in favor of Pollock’s proposal to entirely dissolve the Ethics Board and replace it with a single paid hearing examiner. Pollock specifically targeted the Article I of the City’s Ethics Program, stating that it “seeks to regulate, you know, free speech of public officers.” He pointed out that Bainbridge Island is currently one of only two communities in Western Washington that has a formal code of conduct, a fact that Pollock argued makes its very existence unnecessary.
Councilmember Fantroy-Johnson’s supporting statement in favor of abolishing the ethics board was more personal. “I’m getting emails. And I don’t, I don’t like that. I don’t like the idea. It’s not professional to have everybody contribute to the ethics of whether or not I have moral character…. This, it is uncomfortable when we let everybody weigh in on our activities. We’re public people. Doesn’t mean that all of the public get to say what happens to me…. That needs to be done by someone who has no skin in the game. Someone who no bias, no agenda. If my moral character is going to be assessed. I wanted it assessed by an outsider who has experience doing that.”
Councilmember Nassar was concerned with the amount of time that this and previous Councils have spent discussing the ethics board and program. She expressed criticism of the board’s processes, but was more concerned that the City’s Code of Conduct should have no place in the Ethics Program because it, “confused the public.” In the end, the Mayor’s suggested solution was simply that, “the way to not to have to talk about ethics again is to remove Article I. It is completely irrelevant to what is truly promoting ethical conduct in city government…. It’s inconsistent with prioritization and goals to promote racial equity, to promote diversity of opinion, to promote inclusivity in city government.”
In response, the remaining councilmembers disagreed that this is the time for wholesale change of the ethics program, even if it continues to be a work-in-progress set in motion by its creation in 2005.
Councilmember Joe Deets, who had himself previously served on the Ethics Board prior to election to Council, said that the Council has “an obligation to preserve the public trust in government”, and that the proposed action would “do the exact opposite”. He also pointed out that the intended purpose of the City’s Ethics Board has always been to be educational, not punitive, and that the outcome of the board’s deliberations was a non-binding recommendation, subject to public comment and council debate.
Councilmember Kirsten Hytopoulos firmly disagreed with Councilmember Fantroy-Johson’s assertion that the Ethics Program and Board were “broken beyond repair” and needed to be “thrown out.” Hytopoulos agreed it wasn’t perfect, but suggested it was functioning well enough for the time being and that the Council had many more pressing issues on the table for the rest of the year.
Councilmember Leslie Schneider built on the sentiments of Deets’ statement, recognizing that “this is a very fragile time for public trust in government”, and adding that she would consider an immediate revision of the ethics program, but only if the call to do so were to come from the Ethics Board members themselves, but otherwise agreed with Hytopoulos that more immediate subjects needed the Council’s attention.
Councilmember Christy Carr was more direct and declarative in her opposition to the proposed action: “I don’t support the proposed changes. Particularly I don’t support getting rid of the Ethics Board.” She supported her point of view with another point of argument; “I think that having a hearing examiner decide these things for our community is not a good idea. I think that some council members in the past have supported not having a hearing examiner make our land use decisions because they [the hearing examiners] are out of tune with our community. So I don’t know why that would be really any different”.
Over the course of the discussions, it became clear that there were not the votes needed to advance the issue, especially as the matter had not even been mentioned in the Council’s full-day offsite meeting, held just a few days earlier and created to be a private forum for Council to talk about what should constitute their shared 2021 legislative workload. The meeting ended with no action taken, and no formal motion ever made with regards to the City’s existing ethics program.
For more detail, you can watch the August 10 meeting in its entirety via the City’s website – the ethics discussion item begins at 2:57:54.
ABOUT THE CITY OF BAINBRIDGE ISLAND ETHICS PROGRAM:
The relatively young City of Bainbridge Island was in its fourteenth year when, in 2005 members of City Council stated an intention to establish an ethics program for elected officials. The main reason for doing so was to prevent further instances of council members voting on issues without disclosure of conflict of interest, after just such a situation had occurred. The earliest versions were crafted by a citizen’s panel and included an enforcement element that allowed for more powerful investigatory powers into the actions of elected officials both in public and in private. This was ultimately considered to be “heavy-handed” by a majority of council and edited out of the version introduced .
The Ethics Program has been subject to update and revision multiple times since 2005, with the latest revision occurring a few months ago – in October of 2020. The much-discussed Article I was only added in a revision in recent years – and officially approved in 2018.
THAT MUCH-REFERENCED ARTICLE I OF THE CITY’S ETHICS PROGRAM (IN FULL)
The City of Bainbridge Island has adopted this Code of Conduct, which consists of the Core Values and Ethical Principles detailed below, to promote and maintain the highest standards of personal and professional conduct among City Councilmembers and members of City Committees and Commissions. The optimal operation of democratic government requires that the City’s government be fair and accountable to the people it serves. This Code of Conduct articulated in Article I applies to Councilmembers and members of City Committees and Commissions.
B. Core Values
1. Service, Helpfulness, Innovation
We are committed to providing service to the people of Bainbridge Island and to each other that is courteous, cost effective, and continuously improving.
We treat one another with honesty and integrity, recognizing that trust is hard won and easily lost. We pledge to promote balanced, consistent, and lawful policies and directives, in keeping with that integrity and the highest standards of this community.
3. Equality, Fairness, Mutual Respect
We pledge to act with the standard of fairness and impartiality in the application of policies and directives and that of equality and mutual respect with regard to interpersonal conduct.
4. Responsibility, Stewardship, Recognition
We accept our responsibility for the stewardship of public resources, and our accountability for the results of our efforts, and we pledge to give recognition for exemplary work.
C. Ethical Principles
1. Obligations to the Public
Following the highest standards of public service, Councilmembers and members of City Committees and Commissions act to promote the public good and preserve the public’s trust. In practice, this principle looks like transparency and honesty in all public statements and written communications.
2. Obligations to Others
In order to sustain a culture of ethical integrity, Councilmembers and members of City Committees and Commissions treat each other and the public with respect and are guided by applicable codes of ethics. In practice, this principle looks like:
a. Councilmembers and members of City Committees and Commissions shall familiarize themselves with the ethical rules governing them (including Chapter 42.23 RCW and this Ethics Program) and obtain periodic education regarding such rules.
b. Councilmembers and members of City Committees and Commissions shall, in all their interactions, conduct themselves in a manner that demonstrates civility and respect for others.
3. Obligations Regarding the Use of Public Resources
In recognition of the importance of stewardship, Councilmembers and members of City Committees and Commissions use and allocate public monies, property, and other resources in a responsible manner that takes into consideration both present and future needs of the community. In practice, this principle looks like:
a. Councilmembers and members of City Committees and Commissions shall, to the extent possible, seek guidance regarding the use of public resources from staff and other experts, including legal advice from the City Attorney as appropriate, in order to ensure that public resources are used and conserved for the public good.
b. Councilmembers and members of City Committees and Commissions shall ensure that paid experts and consultants who provide guidance regarding the use of public resources shall be impartial and free of conflicts of interest.