Bainbridge council considers changes to city’s ethics program

The Ethics Board may stay in place, after all.

The Bainbridge Island City Council is building consensus on possible changes to the city’s ethics program.

A record number of complaints over the past two years — and controversial conclusions to some of those complaints — has prompted councilmembers in recent months to take a hard look at what public officials expect their ethics program to do.

At last week’s council meeting, councilmembers agreed to ask city staff to come back with a set of revisions to Bainbridge’s ethics program, which dates back to 2007 when the council chartered a five-member Ethics Board, made up of community volunteers.

Though earlier discussions had flirted with the idea of doing away with the Ethics Board, and moving instead to a process where ethics complaints would be handled by a hearing examiner, city councilmembers said last week they wanted to retain the volunteer board.

A hearing examiner may still be brought into the ethics program, however.

Councilmembers are considering using a hearing examiner to review Article II complaints that have been examined by the Ethics Board but forwarded for further review.

Article II complaints are those that fall under the city’s Code of Ethics, and include conflicts of interest, the use of city property by elected officials, and gifts and compensation.

More controversial, though, are the recent spate of Article I ethics complaints, which deal with claimed violations of the ethics program’s “core values” that cover city officials, employees and volunteers.

Those values include treating citizens with honesty and integrity, and maintaining a climate of equality, fairness and mutual respect.

During last week’s council discussion, some on the council said citizen complaints of core values violations should be kept secret and undocumented, and at the end, not produce written findings on complaints.

The Ethics Board review of Article I complaints is a relatively new phenomenon, and Mayor Kol Medina told his fellow councilmembers that one option may include the board no longer accepting such complaints.

Or, he added, a process could be set up where the person who submits a complaint could meet with the city official on the other side of the dispute and come to some sort of mediated conclusion.

Councilman Ron Peltier, a first-term councilman who has been the subject of repeated complaints since last year, touted the benefits of a hearing examiner, who would be a “neutral decider” on complaints as well as someone who stood apart from the council.

Peltier also asked for better training for the Ethics Board — which he has repeatedly lambasted in the past — and said the program itself needed improvements.

The current program, he said, “leaves a lot up to interpretation.”

The city needs to be more diligent on potential conflicts of interest of Ethics Board members, Peltier added.

Peltier has previously complained about Ethics Board members who have not supported him on initiatives before the council in years past, or have posted things on social media he did not agree with.

“I don’t believe that any Ethics Board member who is politically active in a group that endorses council members for election should be on the Ethics Board,” Peltier said.

“I think there should be rules about posting on public media or commenting on social media. And I think there should be transparency,” he added,

“I think there should be some accountability with the Ethics Board,” Peltier continued. “They need to live up to the program that they’re administering. I’m not sure how to do that. But they shouldn’t be considered above the values that are in our ethics program.”

“I agree with just about everything you said there,” Medina replied.

The mayor added that he also thinks a councilmember should not act as a liaison to the board, a change that has also been suggested for the Ethics Board.

“I think that is spot on,” Medina said.

Under the existing program, members of the Ethics Board are already subject to the Code of Ethics and the program’s core values. The board’s by-laws also already require disclosure on potential conflicts of interest, as well as requirements to follow state law in keeping meetings open to the public.

Peltier’s comments on the board drew a rebuke from Councilwoman Sarah Blossom.

It was more of the same, she said, and she was tired of it.

Blossom took aim at “the constant, unending implication that that our Ethics Board is not neutral, and there are conflicts of interest. And that they are not qualified and that they are not trained.”

“I wish we could just stop and leave that out of this discussion, because it gets us nowhere. It makes me angry; I’m tired of hearing about it.

“We’ve had an Ethics Board for a long time,” Blossom added. “We haven’t had these problems until now. So I think people should stop assuming the problem is the Ethics Board.”

“I agree with that; pretty much everything you said as well,” Medina added.

The council voted 6-1 to direct city staff to come back with revisions to the program. Councilwoman Rasham Nassar voted against the proposal.

Talk about the ethics program continued after the vote.

Peltier said the processing of an ethics complaint can take months, while the subject of the complaint is “skewered in the press.”

“To me, that’s not fair, that’s not right,” he said.

Members of the public should also be held accountable because of the vulnerability of public officials, Peltier added.

“I would also like us to consider having something in our ethics program about members of the public. Right now, they get a complete bye,” he said.

“I think there should be some expectations as to how members of the public interact with public officials, so that we’re not just sitting ducks and somebody can act basically unethically, provoke a city official and then file a complaint.”

There was a difference between city officials and the public, he admitted.

“They shouldn’t be held to the same standard — I’m not arguing for that — but there should be some standards for members of the public who interact with the city and with public officials,” Peltier said.

But with the ethics discussion already past the time allotted for it on the agenda, Medina ended the conversation and moved on to talk about projects funding by lodging taxes.

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