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Ethics code debated

Several council members say new subpoena powers are too much.

The City Council took a hesitant step toward the creation of a formal city ethics code Monday.

Drafted by the citizen-based ethics advisory committee, the proposed code would establish a formal hearing process for complaints against officials, administrators and rank-and-file workers. The ethics code would be overseen by an independent, five-member board with possible subpoena power.

“Good government is based on public trust,” committee member Charles Schmid said. “Without this basic ingredient, a community will question the decisions of its public servants.”

The council unanimously accepted the draft – but only “as a foundation for further discussion,” Councilwoman Christine Rolfes said.

While all council members expressed general support for a code of ethics, some had doubts about aspects of the measure.

“Some of what the (proposed) ethics board does is over the top,” said Councilman Nezam Tooloee, who questioned whether the ethics board should have subpoena power. “We have courts for that.”

Councilman Jim Llewellyn said the proposal needs to set clear rules for the duration of ethics investigations.

“One big question is having a timeline so someone can’t hold a suspect a hostage of the process,” he said.

Councilman Bob Scales asked for greater clarity on how investigations would be conducted, calling the proposed process “ripe for abuse.”

But committee member Bob Schoonmaker defended the proposal.

“We’ve worked on this for two years,” he said to the council. “This is a good program. It’s time for the council to fish or cut bait.”

Schoon­maker hinted that further council delay on the code could incite a “culture of initiatives like Tim Eyman,” in which citizens enact ethics guidelines “from the ground up.”

The council wrangled over the wording on Monday’s action. Careful not to “approve” the measure, Tooloee proposed the council “receive or acknowledge” the draft rather than “accept” it.

Councilman Bill Knobloch, a strong supporter of the code, said such “wordsmithing would give the sense of watering it down.”

Initiated in the early 1990s by a citizen committee, the slow road toward a formal ethics code caught speed in 2003 when Knobloch proposed provisions that would prevent city employees and elected officials from holding business ties to parties that sought “official acts or actions” from the city, such as permits.

The measure was opposed by many city employees, including one planner who considered it a “personal vendetta” originating from earlier disagreements with Knobloch.

Other employees said the measure could cut them off from community involvement and set them up for frequent “appearance of fairness” complaints.

City Admin­istrator Mary Jo Briggs has since crafted an employee code of ethics.

“It repeats policy that says basically that employees may have outside employment and business ties as long as it does not conflict with their job duties,” she said, adding that such ties are subject to a supervisor’s approval.

The ethics committee recommends that Briggs’ code be integrated into their updated May 2004 draft, which addresses staff directors, elected and appointed officials, as well as contractors and consultants.

Schoonmaker said the proposed code is a long overdue component of city government.

“We’re not breaking new ground here,” said Schoonmaker. “We’re playing catch up. The council has taken a step, but it’s a pretty unsure step.”

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