Ethics program approved, sort of

The ordinance simply states the council’s intent to adopt a code.

It’s official: the City Council intends to craft an ethics program for elected officials.

But the ordinance the council passed Wednesday is not what many advocates for greater government accountability were hoping for.

“It was sleazy of them,” said Dave Henry, a longtime advocate for a city ethics program. “It’s an abuse of the public, and I object.”

Henry and members of the city Ethics Citizen Advisory Committee say the nearly three-year process of establishing an ethics ordinance has gone on long enough.

“Look at Congress, look at Enron,” said committee chair Charles Schmid. “You need these rules if something goes awry.”

A draft of the code proposed last summer by the committee would have established a formal hearing process for complaints against officials, administrators and rank-and-file workers.

The ethics code would have been overseen by an independent, five-member board with possible subpoena power.

But some councilors asked the committee to redraw portions of the proposal and chopped out sections establishing an ethics board, enforcement procedures, public disclosure of findings and a process for recommending penalties.

These deletions, initiated by Councilman Bob Scales, “would essentially render the ethics program meaningless, leaving only words of nice intent but no real process for citizens,” Schmid said.

Henry characterized the recent changes as last-minute “back room dealings” crafted by a “good ’ol boys club” in the council.

He also said Scales’ changes illustrate a “time-honored tecnique of appointing a citizen advisory group, letting them draft something, letting it drag on and everyone gets tired, the council thanks them for their efforts, they take it into the back room and re-write it.”

Scales did not attend Wednesday’s city council meeting because of an out-of-state conference. He earlier expressed concerns that the proposed ethics investigation process was “ripe for abuse.”

Councilwoman Debbie Vancil refuted Henry’s accusations, calling them “heresy and rumor.”

She also said Wednesday’s approved measure is “a perfectly good ordinance that speaks to the council’s intent to pass an ethics ordinance.”

Councilman Nezam Tooloee, who made earlier objections to an ethics ordinance with subpoena power, said Wednesday’s action “put (the council) on the hook that we will pass an ethics program.”

Councilman Jim Llewellyn has urged for clearer rules for the duration of ethics investigations to prevent officials from being “taken hostage” by the process.

But some councilors are tired of a procedure that has gone on long enough.

“I’m frustrated watching this drag on,” said Councilman Bill Knobloch, who initiated the most recent push for an ethics code when he proposed provisions in 2003 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. A similar effort fizzled out shortly after its initiation in 1993.

Councilwoman Deborah Vann also expressed irritation over delays and the intent-based ethics ordinance the council passed.

“All we’re doing is saying ‘gee, we ought to do an ethics program,’” Vann said. “We’ve been trying for three years and are continually delayed, delayed and delayed.

“We’re not passing an ethics program, so don’t fool yourself that this council is passing anything with teeth.”

Island resident Barbara Kowalski said the council shouldn’t fear a strong ethics ordinance, unless they have something to hide.

“This will do no harm except to those who may be damaged by having their ethics scrutinized,” she said.

Now that their intent is stated, councilors say they will continue to work with city attorney Paul McMurray to establish a city ethics program.

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