Ethics ordinance needs some moderation

Yes, we agree: We all want an ethical local government. We count on the fair review of our permit applications and requests for service. We trust public employees not to cut deals by which they will profit from their authority.

So why not have an ethics ordinance? While those on both sides of the issue were in full rhetorical flower this week, we find the proposal now before the city council troublesome in both scope and tone.

This sort of “watchdog” law thrives on the same circularity that fuels conspiracy theories – denial of a problem (in this case, conflicts of interest within City Hall) becomes proof that the problem exists. To win support, it counts on a fallacy that

logicians call “denying the antecedent” – that a vote against a specific ethics ordinance will be seen as a vote against ethics.

Our council and community alike should steer around these traps and orient themselves toward questions of merit. And

with due respect to those who spoke in favor of the ordinance Wednesday evening, no one showed any understanding that city workers already operate under council-approved ethics

policies as a condition of their employment, or that procedures exist for the resolution of potential conflicts of interest. Those guidelines – infinitely clearer than the proposed ordinance – should be made available for public enlightenment.

What no one has yet elucidated is: Why now?

In more than a decade of local political coverage, this editor has seen council members and planning commissioners willingly recuse themselves from particular

discussions or decisions; their disclosures of personal interest have been frank and readily forthcoming. We can’t recall any complaints of financially self-serving votes, nor do rumors of

conflicted interests seem to swirl around City Hall. (Ineptitude, sometimes; conflicts, not that we’ve heard.)

We grant that internal guidelines will only be as effective as department managers make them, and there is a case to be made for third-party review of serious allegations. Yet this ordinance would turn personnel matters into a spectator sport.

No doubt some would enjoy the spectacle of a city

functionary hauled before Torqemada, McCarthy and (your nominee here), because someone says the employee’s grandmother owns land next door to someone whose second cousin is now applying for a building permit. And therein we find more concerns – there is no threshold for determining the validity of a complaint before the inquisitors are called in. Any allegation would trigger a public hearing on an employee’s (or council member’s, or mayor’s) professional conduct, an unpalatable prospect likely to drive even good workers to jobs elsewhere. And how happy will council members themselves be, seeing their names followed by “faces ethics charge” in 60-point headline type for some spurious complaint?

Indeed, the very contemplation of a board with the power to put witnesses under oath and compel testimony by subpoena should give all islanders pause. Just what are we creating here?

A clear and reasonable ethics ordinance for Bainbridge Island may yet be devised, but this isn’t it. In the meantime, it seeds clouds of mistrust where few loomed before. And that, we believe, goes to the heart of the resentment shown by city employees this week. Like all of us, they consider themselves fair-minded and professional, and believe they are ably policed within their organization.

Who wants to be told otherwise?

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