Don’t shroud ethics complaints in secrecy | IN OUR OPINION
June 8, 2012 · 11:29 AM
Nobody wants a witch hunt.
But citizens also should not settle for a setup that ends with a slap on the back and a “Don’t worry, you’ll do better next time.”
The Bainbridge Island City Council began its review of a comprehensive set of changes to the City Ethics Program this week.
Some on the council, however, are worried that the city’s Ethics Board will have too much power in investigating and pursuing ethics complaints against city officials.
Councilman Bob Scales raised worries that complaints to the Ethics Board would tarnish the reputations of city officials before the complaints are eventually forwarded to the council. He wants the board to focus on education and training.
Although Scales deserves some credit for going through the ethics code, and the suggested revisions, with a fine-toothed comb, some of his suggested changes are too extreme and would make the work of the Ethics Board near meaningless.
For example, Scales has suggested that final determinations made on ethics complaints would be treated as public records, but would not be posted on the city’s website or handed out unless a citizen made an official public records request. Scales has also proposed keeping preliminary determinations of the Ethics Board confidential.
Both ideas are troublesome.
The Ethics Board would have to review complaints in secret, and also make a decision in secret, something that flies in the face of the transparency that so many want from city hall.
Likewise, hiding decisions from citizens unless they ask for them is equally opaque.
Trying to protect public officials from warrantless ethics complaints is a fruitless task; there will always be some who make outrageous claims about the behavior of those at city hall.
Hiding such complaints from the public view, however, will not make them go away. It’s better for the public to learn who is crying wolf — along with those who have discovered a fox in the henhouse — than to shield such things under the cloak of secrecy and the notion of protecting reputations.