If you file a complaint it shouldn’t be a secret, but much of the rest of the process should be.
That’s the overall message that came out of a joint meeting last week of the Bainbridge Island City Council and Ethics Board.
Bainbridge Island city attorney Joe Levan reminded the City Council it is a public agency with “broad requirements for transparency,” but it didn’t listen.
Deputy Mayor Kirsten Hytopoulos, Councilmember Joe Deets and Ethics Board chairman Tyler Weaver and member Dona Keating will form a subcommittee that will continue the discussion about the anonymity of the process of handling complaints.
The move obviously was needed after the meeting May 26. Council and board members were both concerned with reputations being damaged by unsubstantiated complaints, while Levan stressed the public interest in open government.
Levan mentioned that open records and public meetings laws focus on shedding light on what is done in government. He showed concern when it was brought up that names could be redacted from complaints. He said if someone files a public information request that information would have to be un-redacted.
Hytopoulos said there is a big difference in “putting them all over the place” compared with someone having to ask for them.
Levan also showed concern when it was brought up that the Ethics Board could meet in executive session to keep discussions about complaints more private. “That’s a unique situation and a departure from the way it’s been done in the past,” he said.
Weaver also didn’t like that idea, saying that gives the impression deliberations are taking place in a back room. “Having 75 percent of our discussions in executive session bothers me,” he said.
Levan questioned how far the council wants to go regarding anonymity. “As far as legally possible?” he asked.
The council and board discussed a number of other ideas in an effort to improve the Ethics Board process.
Remove Ethics Board emails from city website
That already has been done. City manager Blair King said he would make sure a generic email is set up for the public to use.
Legal counsel at every meeting
This brought some debate.
Levan said no other city committee has this, and it is quite a financial commitment as an outside attorney is hired to do it.
King suggested it’s probably not needed because most lawsuits against cities tend to be over property rights. He said the agenda could be looked at to see if a city attorney might be needed on a case-by-case basis.
Councilmember Michael Pollock said while it’s “always great to have a lawyer in the room” money might be better spent having one look at an issue after it comes up if there is some concern about it. He suggested Ethics Board members receive some type of law training to give them confidence in dealing with the minor legal issues.
Councilmember Christy Carr suggested maybe there should be a time limit for a city attorney to be at the meeting.
“Having an attorney there protects us in the long run,” Councilmember Brenda Fantroy-Johnson said.
Ethics board members said they appreciate having counsel at their meetings. Weaver said while they don’t use the attorney “non-stop,” they do appreciate the advice.
Accepting anonymous complaints
Mayor Rasham Nassar said the council has discussed this at length and wanted Levan to find court cases to back up their desire not to allow complaints to be anonymous.
While Levan did not have an example he did say there is “no one way to do this. It’s up to the discretion of the council.” He said the council can require those who file complaints to identify themselves, and if they don’t want to explain why not.
Hytopoulos said the council already reached consensus not to accept anonymous complaints without a legitimate safety issue – “Not just, I’m afraid.”
Responding to the Ethics Board
That issue relates to the board not getting a response from someone a complaint was filed against. Weaver said someone who doesn’t want to acknowledge a complaint could “create a never-ending loop.”
Fantroy-Johnson suggested following through with the complaint after attempting to contact the respondent four times.
Councilmember Leslie Schneider suggested using certified mail.
Ethics Board member David Mallon said using snail mail as a backup to email might be a good idea.
Jim Cash, another Ethics Board member, said there needs to be specific language so that if there’s no response even after certified mail that it can take action.
Educational not punitive
Deets suggested more of an emphasis needs to be made that the Ethics Board process is more about education than punishment.
Mallon said the board constantly reminds itself of that. “We’re really not here to punish people,” Weaver agreed.
Carr said the actions of the board and council need to back up that philosophy.
But Pollock brought up that sometimes it may need to be punitive, and that needs to be discussed.
Ethics Board member Dona Keating said there needs to be a punitive aspect, for example, if it takes 10 times for someone to really grasp the educational aspect. “There needs to be a remedy if that fails,” she said.
Fellow board member Karen Anderson agreed. “I would appreciate it being in there,” she said, adding repeated violations need to be treated more seriously.
“It doesn’t help having council’s hands tied,” Schneider said, agreeing there should be stronger language for repeat offenders.
Deets reiterated the language needs to be more explicit because even if the council and board agree now there will be changes on both over the years, plus the ever-changing public also needs to understand the emphasis.
Council gets complaints?
Deets also suggested that the City Council, along with the Ethics Board, receive complaints. As a former Ethics Board member, he said he’s interested in seeing them. He said it’s the council’s job to know what’s going on in all of the city’s committees.
Fantroy-Johnson and Carr said they weren’t interested in receiving them, while Nassar said that’s what the Ethics Board is for.
Deets then said make it optional. “All you have to say is, ‘Don’t send me ethics complaints.’” He said they all can learn about things they should and shouldn’t do from the complaints.
He ended up withdrawing the idea due to a lack of interest from fellow councilmembers. But he did say: “Everything is so confidential and hard to find; it kind of defeats the purpose of education.”
Just how secretive?
That brought the discussion back to just how secretive the process should be.
Weaver said if copies of complaints were given to the council, it would make the process even more open. “How public do we want them to be?” he asked, adding their meetings are already public so people hear the complaints, but their decisions are not circulated.
Mallon said that goes against the educational goal of their mission. He said it’s ironic their decisions aren’t shared. “The one part that is educational for the public is the one part they can’t see,” he said, adding he wouldn’t mind some discussions in executive session because then the public wouldn’t see the “messy middle.”
Pollock said he would support part of the process out of the public eye, understanding the “desire to hash out dirty laundry in private.” Without that, “deliberation publicly becomes almost a form of punishment,” he said.