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Bainbridge council to talk ethics at Wednesday meeting

The Bainbridge Island City Council will grapple with the city's ethics program at its Wednesday meeting in the wake of a controversial complaint against one of the city council members.

At the council's last meeting on March 20, Councilwoman Kirsten Hytopoulos asked that the council to talk about the ethic complaint process after a Bainbridge citizen filed baseless charges against Councilwoman Debbi Lester.

The complaint was found to be insufficiently crafted and was rejected by the city's ethics board March 18.

Hytopoulos is concerned that the ethics complaint process can be abused by people with political motives.

"In my opinion what we've see happen this past week is exactly what some of us were very concerned would happen," Hytopoulos said.

"There's no reason to believe it's not going to happen again. It's not an isolated incident, especially with the state of politics on the island right now," she said.

Hytopoulos said the enduring nature of such complaints online — however baseless or political — is something to be considered.

"The fact that the [ethics] ordinance can be used in a political fashion to stain people's reputations on the Internet forever, can be a problem," Hytopoulos said.

The program was started in 2006 and is overseen by the city's volunteer five-member Ethics Board. It covers the practices of city employees, elected officials and members of the city's citizen committees and commissions.

But the program has received criticism over what some say is an unwanted side effect.

Some city officials are worried that when a complaint is made, the charges are made public before the person at the center of the complaint has a chance to respond to the allegations, despite whether the allegations are true or not.

That problem prompted Councilman Bob Scales to propose amendments to the complaint process in 2011.

Council members have previously proposed that ethics complaints initially be sealed until sometime after the ethics board can proceed with its process.

Despite her experience with the recent complaint against her, and her husband, Ryan Vancil, a land-use attorney, Lester said last week that she still supported the city's ethics program.

"I continue to support an independent and transparent ethics board process," Lester said.

"Citizens should have access to an ethics board and the public should be able to speak to and witness the ethics board deliberations. This is an important part of good government," Lester said.

Even so, she acknowledged the complaint process could be used for political mischief.

"I suspect that the complaint was filed against me in an effort to keep me from voting on the [Shoreline Master Program]," she said. "It was also an effort that regrettably could have tarnished my reputation and tarnished my husband's business."

"It is also my hope that in the future, citizens will not use this important programs for political purposes or mean-spirited intent," she added.

Hytopoulos, however, said last week she was still skeptical about the current setup of the system.

"I unfortunately don't share [Lester's] optimism about simply asking people in this community to refrain from abusing processes to harm reputations," Hytopoulos said.

The city council will meet at 7 p.m. Wednesday at city hall. The council is scheduled to discuss the ethics program at 7:40 p.m.

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