Bainbridge city council upholds ethics complaint against Councilman Peltier

The Bainbridge city council has agreed with the opinion of its Ethics Board that Councilman Ron Peltier violated the city’s Code of Ethics when Peltier called a Bainbridge resident a liar during a council meeting last year.

At that televised council meeting last August, Peltier called Bonnie McBryan, the owner of the Eagle Harbor Inn, a liar seven times and soon after sent an email to more than 150 islanders that called her mean-spirited and vindictive.

In its earlier opinion, the Ethics Board said Peltier’s email was “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.

At its meeting last week, the Bainbridge council agreed and voted 5-1 to concur with the board’s advisory opinion.

Peltier did not vote, while Councilwoman Rasham Nassar cast the sole dissenting vote.

The council also agreed, on a similar 5-1 vote, to accept another decision from the Ethics Board that Peltier displayed inappropriate behavior and was disrespectful when questioning the motives of a citizen who communicated with him while the city was considering a takeover of Puget Sound Energy’s utility infrastructure on the island.

David Johnson, a Bainbridge resident, filed the complaint against Peltier Sept. 4, 2018 after the pair had exchanged a string of email messages.

In the complaint, Johnson said Peltier “derided emails and documents I sent to the council; commanded me to do further research for him; and (writing as a council member) threatened not to take my position ‘seriously’ unless I did that research.”

“Mr. Peltier thus engaged in bullying behavior — by using his council authority to compel a constituent to do what he demanded,” Johnson said in his complaint.

The emails were sent to the council in March 2017 as it was considering a proposal for a public takeover of Puget Sound Energy’s power system on Bainbridge. Johnson recalled that he had been asked by Peltier earlier to pass along information to the council on PSE. Later, when Johnson did just that, he said Peltier “lashed out with intemperate and abusive language.”

While Peltier later offered some acceptance of the Ethic Board’s advice that he choose his words more carefully in his interactions with the community, the first-term councilman at first questioned the transparency of his fellow city officials and criticized the makeup of the meeting agenda that paired the ethics complaints with another agenda item that suggested changes to the city’s ethics program.

His comments prompted an exasperated response from Mayor Kol Medina.

“That’s real nice, Ron. That’s exactly what we’re not supposed to be doing, impugning the motives of others,” Medina said.

Medina also noted that if the council wanted to take action against the bad behavior of a fellow council member, it didn’t need to make changes to the city’s ethics program before asking for sanctions against a council member.

During the council’s discussion of the actual complaints, Peltier said he agreed with the advice from the Ethics Board.

The council vote to accept one opinion on an ethics complaint against Peltier, and formally concur with a second, came after an extended public comment session where many of Peltier’s campaign supporters excused Peltier’s behavior.

Some said rude behavior wasn’t an ethics violation, that Peltier’s blunt comments at times were a sign of his passion on the issues or just his plain-speaking personality, and that the ethics complaints against the councilman were partisan in nature. Others said he wasn’t a practiced politician, and that voters should have the ultimate decision on his effectiveness in office.

At times, the public discussion resembled a political rally; one person who offered comment on the controversy came to the microphone wearing a hat plastered with a bumper sticker that read, “Ron works for us.”

McBryan, speaking after a long string of Peltier supporters, said she had filed the complaint after being advised by a Bainbridge council member to do so.

She was surprised at the reaction since, and that at the meeting, as well, and said she didn’t know she needed “to recruit 50 people to come in and speak on my behalf.”

“I think this is a sham,” McBryan said, adding that the meeting had turned into a public show of support for Peltier.

Her reputation in the community, McBryan said, had suffered greatly because of the councilman’s comments and she was devastated.

Although her public comments that touched off the political firestorm last year — repeating comments made by departing former city manager Doug Schulze in a newspaper article where he accused Peltier of being a bully — appeared righteous, McBryan said, she didn’t deserve to have her honesty repeatedly questioned by an elected official.

“Are you called a liar every day on Twitter?” McBryan asked. “I am.”

During the council’s discussion, Councilman Joe Deets said they should take McBryan’s comments to heart.

Elected officials need to hold themselves to a higher standard, Deets said, and show courtesy and respect to all, even if their opinions on issues are different.

Councilwoman Sarah Blossom agreed that the meeting had turned into “a rally for Ron.”

“It’s not about your passion. That’s not what this is about,” she told Peltier.

The real issue was the council’s interactions with the community, Blossom said.

Medina said it was unfortunate the council had to address Peltier’s behavior.

While he believed Peltier was a good person, Medina said the councilman’s behavior at times was not befitting of a public official.

Since the complaints were filed late last year, Peltier has been trying to moderate his behavior, the mayor noted.

“I have noticed you working harder over the past couple of months. I’ve seen you trying. And I really appreciate that,” Medina said.

Councilman Matthew Tirman said the issue wasn’t about the council’s feelings toward Peltier, or his take on issues, but how his actions were affecting the integrity of the council.

While he said he respected Peltier, Tirman said he was tired and frustrated by the stream of ethics complaints.

“This can’t continue,” Tirman said.