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Ethics ordinance hits a nerve at City Hall

A proposed ethics ordinance drew fire from city employees this week, with one planner accusing a councilman of advancing the proposal to see him fired from his job.

In a hearing before the city council Wednesday, associate planner Josh Machen said Councilman Bill Knobloch was using the ordinance in a “personal vendetta.”

“I believe (Knobloch) has pursued this ordinance as his vehicle to discredit me and disrupt my life,” Machen said. “He has implied in so many words that he would like to see me fired.”

Machen has worked in the planning department for nearly eight years, and washes windows in his spare time to supplement his family income. He is married with three children, and lives in Poulsbo.

The ordinance, introduced by Knobloch last October, would prevent city employees, elected officials and their family members from soliciting or maintaining business ties with parties that come before the city for such “official acts or actions” as permits.

The hearing followed a Tuesday workshop in which more than a dozen city employees spoke against the ordinance. Many contend that as written, the standards would make it impossible for them to conduct any personal business in the community, for fear of being tarred with “appearance of fairness” complaints.

Established city policies now provide avenues for internal investigation and resolution of potential conflicts, they said.

The ordinance would supercede those internal policies, and would send complaints before an appointed, three-person “ethics board” for investigation. Violations could carry civil and criminal penalties (see first sidebar).

The ordinance would not apply to employees including Machen who work under a collective bargaining agreement, after complaints by the two unions representing city workers (see second sidebar).

But an employee this week said union members and some managers have agreed to tackle the issue as a team, regardless of who would be affected by the ordinance.

Knobloch, Machen told the council, had singled him out for criticism in the community, telling a citizen the ordinance is needed “so we don’t have planners like Josh Machen washing windows on Winslow Way.”

Machen said he has cleaned windows for Winslow Hardware, but that it did not pose a conflict with his planning duties.

City Administrator Lynn Nordby said that when the issue was reviewed recently, Machen was instructed not to perform work on new construction or for contractors doing work on Bainbridge Island.

Knobloch did not comment during the public hearing, and Friday issued a prepared statement.

“I am encouraged by the support given at public comment from citizens looking for a standard of conduct in government,” Knobloch wrote. “The need for ethical standards reflects citizen concerns that have been voiced to mayors, administration and city council members since Bainbridge became a city. Many cities in our state, both large and small, have ethics ordinances on their books, and those communities have benefited over the years.

“It is regrettable that an employee used the public comment portion of a city council meeting to launch a personal attack, when he should have resolved his issues through other means.”

Machen told the council the “vendetta” dated to 2000, when he was the planner assigned to process an application by the Wing Point Golf and Country Club for a driving range abutting Azalea Avenue. Knobloch, an Azalea resident who at that time did not serve on the council, was an active opponent of the project.

After a year-long legal fight before a hearing examiner, a permit denial, appeals and a permit revision, the country club abandoned the project.

Machen said that during the process, Knobloch came to see him as “the enemy,” and threatened several times in the presence of others to “get” the planner for his work on the application.

The council did not respond to Machen’s comments, although chair Christine Nasser Rolfes instructed others queued up at the podium to resolve personal complaints through other venues.

The ordinance did draw generally supportive comments from a half-dozen citizens. Packard Lane resident Gail Spencer said it would provide a vehicle by which citizens could have their complaints about city workers reviewed by an impartial board.

Linda Lemon, who said she had worked under ethics codes in both the public and private sectors, called it “a step forward” for the city.

Attorney Ted Spearman favored the idea, but took issue with a provision by which whistle-blowers could be prosecuted for leveling false allegations, saying it would have a chilling effect on complaints.

Kathy Blossom of South Bainbridge Water, who has worked with city departments on utility and development issues, told the council that employees are already highly ethical in their work.

“How you’ve approached (the ordinance) has offended a number of the people who work for you,” she said.

After the hearing, Councilwoman Lois Curtis said the ordinance likely would be substantially reworked in committee.

“I think the fear some of us have is that this is something that inflates the importance of whatever’s being talked about, and that it prolongs any inquiry,” Curtis said. “I think we don’t want to do that, unless it’s really a serious case.

She added, “I think the policies that are in place now are well written, and have been used discretely but to good effect.

“My first thought is that we should refer to them and put them in the process somehow.”

FIRST SIDEBAR: Board of Ethics -- The proposed ordinance would create a three-person Ethics Board with one member appointed by the mayor, one by the council, and one by the other two board members.

The board would have the power to investigate alleged ethics violations by city elected officials and employees, and to hire an outside investigator for assistance. It would have the power to conduct public hearinigs; administer oaths and affirmations in gathering evidence; examine witnesses; and compel attendance of persons and the producing of documents by subpoena.

The board could recommend civil, criminal or disciplinary actions for infractions; violations, as determined by a preponderance of evidence, would be misdemeanors punishable by fines of up to $500.

SECOND SIDEBAR: Conflict over conflicts -- In questioning the need for an ethics ordinance, city employees interviewed this week cited fairness guidelines already in place.

Those policies were reviewed and adopted by the city council in the mid-1990s, with subsequent revisions made. They are included in the city employee handbook and are available for reference on the city’s internal computer network.

“(The ordinance) almost makes it sound like we’ve been running around headless for the last five years, with no ethics,” said Sue Unger, permit technician in the planning department.

The multi-page guidelines prohibit disclosure of confidential information and acceptance of gifts or other compensation “from anyone who has a business relationship with the city.” They mandate that employees disclose any financial ties, including those of family members, that may cause a conflict of interest in the conduct of city business.

Allegations of conflict of interest are treated internally, with an investigation by a department head or other supervisor. If a conflict is substantiated and is not resolved to the satisfaction of management, an employee is subject to disciplinary action.

Employees say the proposed ethics ordinance would take complaints out of the confidential realm of personnel issues, and thrust them into the public spotlight before a three-person board.

“Suddenly, we’re in front of the cameras,” said Lorenz Eber, an engineer in the public works department. “If we get some spurious complaint, even if it’s pulled out of the air, it lives forever.”

Several said the process would create an immediate adversarial situation in which employees would have to hire attorneys to protect their interests and professional reputations when appearing before the board.

Ross Hathaway, a city engineer not represented by the employees union, said “mature organizations” can police themselves for conflicts, and that the city does just that.

“Someone has brought a firehose to clean the living room, before they’ve opened the door to see what’s inside,” Hathaway said.

Concern over the ordinance has also turned into a labor issue for employees, most of whom are represented by the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers and the local Police Guild.

An early draft of the ethics ordinance would have covered the city rank and file, but they were excluded after objections by the unions. In separate letters to the city in January, officials from both unions said the ordinance would be a unilateral change to current collective bargaining agreements, in violation of those agreements.

At least one council member, though, has suggested that the administration could make the ordinance provisions part of the next contract talks.

One employee cast the issue in the context of friction between the mayor and city council, and criticism of top administrators.

“It’s another one in a string of antagonisms,” the employee said. “First (they) do the mayor, then Lynn Nordby, then (personnel director) Kathleen Grauman, and now the employees. Where does it end?”

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