The Bainbridge Island City Council has voted to reprimand Councilman Ron Peltier for his violations of the city’s Code of Ethics.
Mayor Kol Medina is expected to soon present Peltier with an official letter of reprimand following last Tuesday’s 5-1 vote against the first-term councilman.
Peltier has been the subject of a string of ethics complaints that detailed multiple instances of bad behavior and possible conflicts of interest since last year.
During a study session last week, councilmembers said the latest complaint against Peltier — one that ethics officials said showed Peltier had waged an extended and ongoing “campaign of harassment” against former city manager Doug Schulze after his departure from the island for a new job in Banning, California — was clearly “over the line.”
“This is a big deal, this one. This is behavior that we do not condone,” said City Councilman Joe Deets.
“You just really crossed the line,” Deets said.
The latest ethics complaint against Peltier was filed Feb. 24 by Lisa Schulze, the wife of Doug Schulze.
Schulze resigned from his Bainbridge job last year to take a new position as city manager in Banning, California.
But in her complaint, Lisa Schulze said Peltier had contacted Banning City Councilman Don Peterson after her husband took over as Banning’s city manager, and that Peltier shared information with Peterson that has since been used to attack Doug Schulze on Facebook.
In its opinion, the Ethics Board said that Peltier has been engaged in activities that appeared to violate the city of Bainbridge Island Code of Ethics, and the bad behavior started soon after Schulze submitted his letter of resignation to the council.
Going downhill fast
Peltier’s notoriously bad relationship with the city manager, however, worsened after Schulze was interviewed about his departure and said in a newspaper story that conflicts with Peltier were one of the reasons he was leaving Bainbridge.
Ethics officials called Peltier’s behavior “unprofessional,” “unacceptable” and “bullying, pure and simple.”
“In the simplest terms possible, the Ethics Board’s opinion is: Stop this harassing behavior,” the board said in its report.
After their review of the complaint, ethics officials laid out a laundry list of concerns about Peltier’s behavior.
A broad overview listed eight areas of violations:
• Violation of core values of the Bainbridge Island Code of Ethics, specifically integrity, mutual respect, obligations to others and fairness;
• Initiating contact with a council member in Banning to engage in discrediting Schulze;
• Harassment of a former employee by Councilman Peltier vis-à-vis following Schulze to a new position in another city;
• Possible collusion with a Banning City Council member to create a hostile work environment for a Banning city employee;
• An extended campaign, on-going since July 2018, to discredit Schulze;
• The use of city resources to conduct a campaign against the former City Manager Schulze;
• Confidentiality violations in documents offered to Banning Council member and in the process used to file complaints with the International City Manager’s Association (ICMA); and
• Possible conflict of interest through actions taken in an official capacity to pursue a matter of private interest.
The Ethics Board also said Peltier colluded with a Banning councilman to create his second complaint to the ICMA and shared information that should have been kept confidential.
Ethics officials also said Peltier had put the city at risk of a lawsuit.
The complaint was put on hold earlier this year, however, as city councilmembers turned instead to possible revisions to Bainbridge’s ethics program.
Inability to reach consensus on changes in recent months, though, led to a study session last week at city hall that saw the council revisiting 15 opinions and determinations made by the ethics board over the past two years.
Much of the discussion centered on the complaint by Schulze against Peltier, and a complaint against Councilwoman Rasham Nassar on the question of whether Nassar should have stepped aside from voting on land-use decisions following the discovery of multiple land-use development violations on the councilwoman’s property.
Most of the 15 opinions from the Ethics Board were quickly set aside by the council as already resolved, with much of the discussion that followed based on complaints against Peltier.
Peltier said his comments to the Banning councilman were not intended to be public, and even so, repeatedly noted that he had a right to free speech.
He also delivered harsh criticism of the Ethics Board itself, and said their opinion on ethics violations were subjective.
While officials did agree that Peltier did not share confidential documents with the Banning councilmember — which included a performance evaluation of Schulze while he worked for Bainbridge, as well as Peltier’s formal complaints about Schulze with the ICMA — it was the wrong thing to do.
Councilwoman Sarah Blossom said those records were public documents.
“I don’t think that breaches any of our rules, but I don’t think you should have done it,” Blossom added.
And of the multiple emails that Peltier sent to the Banning councilman that helped stir the pot of public criticism of Schulze on social media, Blossom said: “They shouldn’t have been written in the first place.”
At one point, Blossom read aloud some of the emails exchanged between Peltier and the Banning councilman, including one that included profanity. Peltier objected, though the harsh criticism of his conduct by his colleagues continued.
“I’m just very sad that those comments would have been made at all,” said Councilwoman Leslie Schneider.
“And I’m kind of horrified that they would be done as a representation as a city official,” she added.
“This all comes down to behavior,” added Councilman Matt Tirman. “This is behavior in a very public light.”
Tirman wondered aloud if a reprimand, or even a censure, would be enough.
“Personally, if it were up to me, I think we would remove Councilman Peltier from regional commissions and boards because he has shown that he does not treat others with respect,” Tirman said.
“And that behavior, I think needs to be corrected by this council,” he added.
Peltier said his comments only became public after a complaint was filed and was reported in the local newspaper, and he placed the blame on the person who made the complaint — Schulze’s wife — for it becoming publicized.
“It wasn’t like I posted something on social media and Facebook,” Peltier said.
“I’m not disputing that you find my comments offensive, but they weren’t public comments, other than the fact that they were public records,” he added.
Peltier was unapologetic throughout the meeting, and said the Ethics Board showed a disregard for free speech, and was using the ethics program to curtail any free speech that they don’t agree with, “seeming to believe that elected officials give up their right to free speech based upon the Ethics Board’s subjective opinions.”
He accused the Ethics Board of the same charges that had been leveled at the first-term councilman in the complaint against him: harassment and bullying, creating a hostile work place, causing harm and embarrassment, and demonstrating a lack of fairness and impartiality.
Peltier said his rights to due process had been violated, and claimed an Ethics Board member had a conflict of interest in the case. He also complained that news coverage of the complaints against him had influenced public opinion.
Councilmembers repeatedly interrupted Peltier for going off-topic and not addressing the issues at hand.
Blossom pointedly told Peltier his right to free speech was not violated; he voluntarily ran for office to a council guided by a code of ethics.
“You still have the right to free speech, but now, sometimes there are consequences for what you say,” Blossom said.
“You embarrassed yourself, you embarrassed this council. I think you brought a great degree of … pain to the complainant,” Tirman said, and added that Peltier had not taken ownership of his actions.
“None of this was necessary,” Tirman said. “I’m not sure why you felt the need to follow the Schulzes down to Banning and continue this behavior, instead of attempting to take the high road.”
“I’m mortified,” added Schneider. “I’m embarrassed that one of my colleagues would … take pleasure in the pain of others.”
“It is unforgivable behavior. I don’t know how to say it any other way,” she said.
Councilman Joe Deets agreed that the council should “seriously look” at removing Peltier from regional commissions and boards where he represents the city of Bainbridge.
“We should follow up with an appropriate penalty. I’m in favor of removal of Councilman Peltier from regional committees,” Deets said.
But Schneider said she was willing to wait before taking that step, and added: “What’s missing for me is, I don’t really feel that Councilmember Peltier has voiced regret or learning or understanding the impact of his actions.”
Peltier found one voice of support on the seven-member council; from Nassar, his stanchest ally on the council.
She asked that the complaint be retracted.
“I’m really disappointed at some of the comments I’m hearing from my colleagues,” she said.
Nassar, who had earlier complained about the council discussing its individual mistakes in public, said the council should instead be talking about mutual respect and fairness, forgiveness and equity.
They should forgive, she said, the mistakes made by others on the council.
“And build upon our level of tolerance for each other. We may disagree with each other. I don’t necessarily agree with the content of some of those emails, but I think a reprimand is sufficient and we stop there and we move on.”
“We’ve all made mistakes on the city council and in life,” Nassar said. “What’s happening right now is that some council member’s mistakes are being highlighted and discussed publicly.”
Such talk brings scrutiny, embarrassment and humiliation, she added.
Nassar said the ethics complaint process should be more about compassion than punishment.
That brought a strong pushback from Blossom.
“One of the issues for me is the lack of remorse,” Blossom said.
“And frankly, the double standard that has particularly been on display tonight. So much concern about impugning our reputations and our due process — but that doesn’t seem to be a concern when it comes to the actions that have been done to others.
“That really bothers me; the double standard,” Blossom said. “I would support further action.”
“I’m happy to forgive. It’s the lack of remorse,” Tirman added. “I’m happy to forgive. But we also can’t let this behavior occur again.
“Empathy is fine; I’ve got loads of empathy,” Tirman continued. “I haven’t heard one ounce of remorse; I haven’t heard one ounce of putting yourself in another someone else’s shoes in all these discussions.
“This has been really frustrating and disappointing tonight,” he said.
Mayor Kol Medina agreed, but he said he had noticed Peltier changing his behavior for the better, although it wasn’t on display that night.
But Medina also said he would wait for another occurrence of bad behavior before removing Peltier from his other roles as city representative.
“It’s nothing personal; I would expect the same for me,” Medina said.
The council voted 5-1 to reprimand Peltier. The sole vote in opposition came from Nassar, with Peltier taking a mandatory abstention.