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Ethics board maps gray areas

The new board will review the conduct of island elected officials.

Though its ultimate measure is green, financial success is measured in red and black.

Ethics, meanwhile, would be easier to handle in black and white.

But more often, said Bob Schoonmaker, who helped lay the foundation for the city’s new ethics board, they become obscured in varying shades of grey.

“Most people really want to do the right thing,” Schoonmaker said. “The problems sometimes happen in that grey area where they don’t always know what’s cool and what’s not cool.”

Hence the ethics board, designed to bring greater accountability to elected officials at the city. Four years in the making, the five-member team launched its work in August and has met four times, including its latest meeting on Monday.

Focus thus far has been on clarifying the board’s own role and procedures. But in the coming years, the group sees itself performing several functions, according to Chair Barbara Kerr.

It will solidify its bylaws, offer ethical opinions and guidelines for the mayor and city councilors, provide training to both officials and city employees, update and extend the city’s ethics program and produce an annual report summarizing its work.

But the board’s main purpose really boils down to one question that can creep into many facets of city dealings, from personnel moves to land deals to selecting a contractor:

“Is this something that’s an ethical violation?” Kerr said.

If it is, and it falls within the board’s purview, they will publish an advisory opinion.

That opinion, she said, would be posted at City Hall and made available to the public and the press.

In cases in which a strong dissenting opinion exists, that opinion will be published as well.

The board won’t dole out punishment; that would come at the hands of the hearing examiner, who, if the opinion of the board is upheld, could call for admonition, reprimand or censure of the official in question.

To avoid potential problems, officials can request a waiver for any provision of the ethics code before making a particular decision.

Conflict of interest, improper use of city property and the acceptance of inappropriate gifts are examples of the types of ethical violations that are to be addressed by the program.

Councilman Bill Knobloch, who introduced the idea in 2003, said dealing with ethics is rarely simple.

“We knew that going in,” he said. “But we felt getting it in place would be a good first step toward eventually creating an all inclusive ethics program for government employees.”

Until then, the board only will review matters pertaining to elected officials.

The board has reviewed two cases already, neither of which will be forwarded to the hearing examiner.

Confidentiality has so far been an issue in processing requests for review. Names of those filing complaints can be redacted, but the content becomes part of the public record because the meetings are public.

Before the board was formed, an advisory group, including Schoonmaker, crafted a resolution that the council later adopted to form the current ethics foundation at the city.

“A lot of communities were talking about ethics,” Schoonmaker said. “Everyone knew it was of value, but nobody knew exactly what it was.”

To help clarify, the group looked at ordinances elsewhere, which have continued to become more common in recent years. City Attorney Paul McMurray has and will continue to be involved as the program expands to potentially include committees, commissions and all city employees.

Members of the unpaid board went through an interview process and were approved by the mayor and councilors for staggered terms.

The board is planning a retreat in January to further clarify its mission; its next meeting is Nov. 12.

“We’re building the ship and sailing it at the same time,” Kerr said. “The basic idea is to try to encourage truly ethical standards and culture in island government. We’d also like to include some language that’s inspiring and uplifting – not just a list of don’ts.”

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Toward ethical conduct

The Ethics Board meets on the second Monday of each month. Citizens who would like to request an opinion by the board can do so by filling out a form – available at the city’s website – and submitting it to the city clerk.

In cases where the board finds a breach of ethics, its opinion will be forwarded to the hearing examiner for further investigation and potential action, including admonition, reprimand and censure. Only cases involving elected officials will be considered.

The board has five members, all of whom were approved by both the mayor and city councilors. It includes:

Chair, Barbara Kerr – Former English professor, consultant and coach.

Jan Heller – System Director, Ethics and Theology, Providence Health & Services.

Michael Piraino – Attorney and CEO of a child advocacy non-for-profit organization.

Dennis Willerford – Practicing physician and former medical school professor.

Susan Buckles – Attorney for the state of Washington, clinical social worker.

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