Bainbridge city council weighs consequences of politically motivated ethics complaints

The Bainbridge Island City Council wrestled with an ethical dilemma Wednesday in the wake of a controversy involving one of its own.

An ethics complaint was filed with the city on March 12 alleging that Councilwoman Debbi Lester held a conflict of interest and shouldn’t vote on the Shoreline Master Program update currently under discussion by the council.

The complaint was ultimately rejected by the city’s Ethics Board as unfounded.

The incident rattled the council, and some warned that ethics complaints could be purely political.

“I think this is not an isolated incident and will continue to happen,” said Councilman Bob Scales. “This was clearly designed to prevent or influence the vote of a council member.”

Some council members raised concerns that the complaint was quickly picked up by the press.

“One of the things that was most distressful was apparently the ethics filing was distributed to the press before it was even distributed to any of the people involved,” said Mayor Steve Bonkowski.

Lester said that she was only notified of the complaint shortly before a public records request asking for the complaint from the Bainbridge Review was to be fulfilled.

Other issues surrounding the ethics complaint process aren’t new, but they arose again during this week’s council discussion. Scales previously has argued that something needs to be done to shield the accused from public scrutiny until the Ethic’s Board can screen out frivolous complaints.

“The problem lies with our ethics program,” Scales said. “Unfortunately, the program we have now is ripe for abuse and it leads to unjust results.”

Scales noted the original draft of the city’s ethics program in 2006 required that complainants first ask for an opinion from the ethics board without giving names or specifics to ensure that their complaint was valid.

“The reason for that was to avoid this exact situation,” he said. “Where you clearly have a politically motivated complaint, and it was so clear because one of the ethics board members recused himself because he belongs to the same political organization as the complainant.”

Scales said that the program is subject to political mischief and examples could be easily found on the internet.

“Now if you ever google ‘Bainbridge Island ethics’ you will get a slew of all the accusations made against elected officials and commissioners. And not once since 2006 have we found an ethics violation on Bainbridge Island, but you wouldn’t know that from the press,” Scales said.

“I believe that having a program like this — with so many flaws that leads to abuse and injustice — will deter people from serving on our boards and commissions,” he added. “Who wants to go through that?”

Scales wasn’t alone in his assessment of the situation.

“What we’ve learned from this experience is, indeed, in our community, these things will be launched purely from a political perspective and the result is that somebody’s name is attached to an accusation of unethical behavior,” said Councilwoman Kirsten Hytopoulos.

Lester, who found herself at the center of the recent controversy, said she still held great respect for the Ethics Board and its complaint process.

“I think it was an exemplary process,” Lester said. “Watching the Ethics Board members deliberate, I thought it was great, open and transparent. I am more concerned with the beginning of the process in that figuring out how the respondent and the ethics board can simultaneously receive the complaint.”

The complaint was submitted to the city on March 12. It was first made public during a council session March 13, when the person who filed the complaint urged the city manager to look into it.

Lester said the press should have determined if the complaint was factual before reporting on it.

“It was received on Tuesday and I didn’t find out about it until Friday, late in the afternoon,” Lester said.

No changes to the ethics program were proposed Wednesday. Instead, the council decided to move the issue to a future study session.

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