How can we keep tabs on something with secrecy?

To suppress free speech is a double wrong. It violates the rights of the hearer as well as those of the speaker. — Frederick Douglass

If you’ve read any of my columns the past two years you know I’m all about open government, freedom of the press, freedom of speech and against most efforts to restrict the exchange of information.

Even holding back information because of “national security” concerns me. If it truly is for national security and the safety of people in this country, by all means withhold it. But who gets to decide if it truly is a national security threat or just the threat of certain politicians? They do. It’s like the rooster guarding the hen house, as the old saying goes.

So this rant about the City Council and ethics board on Bainbridge Island should come as no surprise to anyone.

That ethics board was created years ago because of problems with the City Council. It was before my time, but apparently accusations were flying around town about many ethical problems alleged against various councilmembers.

So, in an effort to improve their reputation, the council established an ethics board to accept complaints, basically decide if they are valid or not, and make an advisory decision if they should go on to the hearing examiner.

The board looks at conduct and ethics complaints against council and city committee members, along with city employees. They look at the 4Cs: conduct at meetings, confidentiality, conflict of interest, and compensation and gifts. Admonishment, reprimand, censure and other solutions are its options.

What makes this situation bad now is the City Council just decided to allow the complainants and the target of the complaints to remain anonymous, unless the ethics board decides it is valid and should continue on to the hearing examiner.

Wait a second. Wasn’t the ethics board established to build trust in government? How can that be done if information is kept secret?

The city attorney warned the council against this months ago, reminding the council that it is a public agency with “broad requirements for transparency.” But a subcommittee of City Council and ethics board members decided on anonymity anyway. They were concerned about reputations being damaged by unsubstantiated complaints.

I have concerns about that word “unsubstantiated.” Even though the volunteer ethics board may decide that, another group of reasonable people may have decided just the opposite. The only way to know is to get that information out to the public. Let the people know what the complaint was, who filed it, who it was against, and why the ethics board ruled the way it did. That’s what happens in a court of law. And then the people can decide, having all the facts, if the judicial board ruled correctly. That is true transparency in government.

Having such information anonymous is unethical for an ethics board. The whole idea of an ethics board is to shed light on what is done in government. How can that be done in the dark?

Some on the subcommittee were concerned people wouldn’t run for council or a committee spot because of the threat of their reputations being hurt. Well, that is going to happen anyway. People who run for office, just like people in journalism, have to have a tough shell because they always will be criticized, no matter what they do. But if you explain your actions, damage to your reputation will be less. If people understand your reasoning, they are usually less critical, even if they disagree with you.

At least with things out in the open the public can decide if the information is valid or not or if the board, council and hearing examiner are doing their jobs correctly. When the public doesn’t know what’s going on, we can only think there must be some kind of shenanigans behind it.

Steve Powell is the editor of the Bainbridge Island Review, North Kitsap Herald and Kingston Community News.