Bainbridge Ethics Board rules against Councilman Peltier in conflict-of-interest complaint

Bainbridge City Councilman Ron Peltier violated the city’s Code of Ethics and displayed a conflict of interest when he refused to lower the speed limit on Grow Avenue unless the speed limit was also reduced an adjacent street where he owns property.

In a recent but undated decision, the Ethics Board said it was referring the ethics complaint to the Bainbridge council for review.

Peltier, in an email to the Bainbridge Review this week, said he would ask the city council to discuss the complaint in an open session of the council.

“If a majority of the city council agrees that a conflict of interest violation has occurred I will then be appealing that decision to the hearing examiner,” Peltier added.

The Ethics Board decision was prompted by a Sept. 12 complaint against the first-term councilman that was filed by resident Chip McDermott.

McDermott said Peltier wanted the speed limit lowered on Lovell Avenue Northwest because the councilman had a home there.

In his complaint, McDermott recalled how Grow Avenue residents had long lobbied the city to lower the speed limit on Grow from 25 to 20 mph from High School Road to Winslow Way West.

Some of the residents on Grow, who were members of the Slow on Grow Committee, met with Peltier and Councilwoman Rasham Nassar soon after Nassar was elected to the city council.

That meeting — which followed multiple earlier meetings with city officials, a petition drive supported by more than 100 Grow residents, and the committee’s creation of a three-step plan to reduce speed and traffic on Grow — included Peltier, who was invited to the meeting by Nassar.

During the meeting, McDermott recounted the work of the Slow on Grow Committee over the previous months, which included meetings with city officials and others on the council. In his complaint against Peltier, McDermott recounted that he and another committee member pressed Nassar and Peltier to lower the speed limit along the entire length of Grow Avenue to 20 mph.

“Ron’s basic position was this: I can help you, but I want 20 mph on Lovell, too,” McDermott said in his complaint.

McDermott said he was upset that Lovell Avenue NW had been casually thrown in to the Slow on Grow proposal, and pressed Peltier to explain why he wanted that neighboring street included.

McDermott claimed Peltier tried to ignore the question, but eventually offered, “because if you drop Upper Grow — in particular — to 20 mph, all Upper Grow traffic will then move over to Lovell.”

In the complaint, McDermott said he thought the explanation sounded “implausible, if not a bit ridiculous,” and asked if Peltier had any data or evidence to back up his rationale.

“Pressed again, finally, Ron said, ‘I have a home on Lovell.’

“I got a pit in my stomach,” McDermott added. “Small-town, old-boy politics at its worst.”

“The kicker came next,” McDermott continued. “When I pressed him further asking how he could do this (to us — ostensibly for the Grow Avenue residents) he said, to the effect: ‘Hey, I’m a councilman,’ with an uncomfortable smile,” according to the complaint.

In Peltier’s official response to the complaint, he said McDermott gave a “twisted account of our meeting.”

Peltier accused McDermott of being “elitist,” and the councilman said his suggestion was made on behalf of the larger community.

He said his point in mentioning that he owned a house on Lovell Avenue was an attempt to show “I had some history in the neighborhood,” and noted his family had lived on the street since 1966.

Peltier said McDermott’s charge that the councilman’s request amounted to “small-town, old-boy politics” was “total BS.”

“I knew that if [McDermott] got what he wanted, special and exclusive treatment for Grow Avenue, because they had done their ‘due diligence,’ that Lovell Avenue would be negatively impacted. It was my way of saying, ‘you may have done all of your ‘due diligence,’ and believe that has earned you special consideration, but I’m on the city council and that’s why I want the folks on Lovell Avenue to be given equal consideration: even though they haven’t organized themselves to advocate for their interests,” Peltier said in his response.

In its decision, however, the Ethics Board said a material violation of the city’s Code of Ethics had likely occurred.

The code, the board noted, prohibits city officials from taking any direct action if that official is “the owner of an interest in real or personal property that would be significantly affected by the action.”

The McDermott complaint was one of three specifically directed at Peltier late last year.

In all, there were five ethics complaints made in 2018 — more than the number filed in the four previous years.

Other complaints against Peltier centered on alleged inappropriate behavior toward Bainbridge residents who spoke out on issues before the city council. Peltier was called out for “bullying behavior,” and a resident who offered public comment at a council meeting in August said Peltier called her a liar seven times during the meeting, which was televised, and soon after sent an email to more than 150 islanders that called her mean-spirited and vindictive.

In his response to the complaint, Peltier said the resident didn’t have “a deep commitment to telling the truth.”

“I believe I had a right to defend myself against what I perceived to be a personal attack in which [the resident] used name-calling, innuendo, and misrepresentations of the truth to impugn my character. However, I do believe I could have been more restrained and measured in how I responded.”

In two recent but undated advisory opinions issued by the Ethics Board, officials said Peltier shouldn’t have questioned the motives of citizens who speak to the council.

“This is dangerous territory in any conversation, and particularly so when an elected official responds to a citizen,” the board said.

The board also said city officials should not respond in anger if they feel verbally attacked by the public, and that the mayor should have called the meeting to a halt and reinforced the need for respectful dialog.

“The role of serving the public calls for a more mature response, which in this case is no response at all, or to offer a constructive response and establish a culture of open discourse,” the Ethics Board noted. “Otherwise such action degrades trust in government and unchecked, can lead to rapid erosion of all trust built over time.”

Peltier’s email that called the citizen of lying, the board added, appeared “retaliatory and harassing.”

“Using a city email account to broadcast a council member’s dislike of public comments clearly fails any test of respectful communication. This is unacceptable,” the board said.

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