Harris ethics report forwarded to Vancouver City Council

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Previously: Vancouver City Council ethics subcommittee found Sept. 30 that Councilor Jeanne Harris committed three separate ethics violations during a city council meeting on Sept. 13.

What's new: The three-person subcommittee approved a report of their findings and recommended sanctions on Tuesday.

What's next: The report will be brought before the full city council for action at 6 p.m. Monday at City Hall, 210 E. 13th St.

Previously: Vancouver City Council ethics subcommittee found Sept. 30 that Councilor Jeanne Harris committed three separate ethics violations during a city council meeting on Sept. 13.

What’s new: The three-person subcommittee approved a report of their findings and recommended sanctions on Tuesday.

What’s next: The report will be brought before the full city council for action at 6 p.m. Monday at City Hall, 210 E. 13th St.

A report recommending that Vancouver City Councilor Jeanne Harris be stripped of all her council-appointed boards for violating the city ethics code was approved Tuesday by a three-member subcommittee.

The full city council will discuss and vote on the subcommittee’s report Monday. The investigation was the result of a Sept. 13 meeting during which Harris quarrelled with citizen speakers and Councilor Jeanne Stewart, and also demanded that Mayor Tim Leavitt “gavel down” a man at the podium, leaving the room when the mayor did not do so.

Leavitt asked Councilors Larry Smith, Pat Campbell and Jack Burkman to form the subcommittee; Smith and Burkman filed the ethics complaint a day after Harris’ outburst. It was the first ethics investigation of a council member since the city council passed its ethics policy in 1999.

“The document’s very well-crafted, it captures the behavior, it’s very specific,” said Smith, who served as the committee chairman.

Tuesday’s meeting was to review the final report of the Sept. 30 ethics subcommittee meeting. It lasted less than 10 minutes and just two people sat in the audience.

The report found three violations by Harris of a council policy that states: “Council members will, at all times, treat each other with respect and dignity.” They found Harris guilty of such violations twice in her interactions with Stewart and once in the way she overrode Leavitt.

The committee also said that Harris was “totally out of line” in the way she interacted with citizens — but noted there is nothing in the policy that allows them to censure her for mistreatment of the public. The council is in the middle of revising all of its policies, and plans to overhaul the ethics section by the end of the year. Those changes will likely include a standard for interaction with the public.

Harris’ sparring with anti-tolling and light-rail speakers has been the source of much of the indignation citizens have sent her way since the Sept. 13 meeting. A video, captured by a cameraman from the NoTolls.com political action committee and posted on YouTube, has surpassed 102,000 views.

The committee recommended that Harris be removed from all her boards and commissions for the ethics violations. The most senior member of the city council, Harris sits on many of the most high-profile boards, including the C-Tran board of directors and the Southwest Washington Regional Transportation Council. The committee recommended her exclusion last until 2012; she was expected to be the chairwoman for both C-Tran and RTC next year.

Removing Harris from her city council seat was not an option.

For the city council to remove Harris from office, she must be guilty of a crime that interferes with her ability to perform her duties, commit moral turpitude, move out of the city, or intentionally violate the city charter, City Attorney Ted Gathe explained.

“Beyond that, the threshold is very high for removal,” he said Sept. 30. “I could find no instance” in this case that Harris’ actions “could result in removal of office.”

A citizen recall requires the same high bar — state law allows recall for city elected officials who have committed an act of malfeasance or violated the oath of office. Harris’ term expires in 2013.

The subcommittee could have recommended a more harsh form of punishment — a verbal, public censure — but chose not to.

“Because council member Harris’ conduct … has received significant public attention and scrutiny, the committee believes that a letter of reprimand which will be made public is the functional equivalent of the censure process,” the report reads.

Harris left Sept. 17 for a previously scheduled, privately funded fellowship in Germany, touring the country with fellow elected officials from across the United States. She will return Oct. 19. However, the report was sent to Harris after Burkman, Campbell and Smith signed it Tuesday afternoon. She will have until Monday’s city council meeting to respond.

“I know she has had multiple contacts with those at City Hall through e-mail and phone calls,” so she should reasonably have access to the report and could answer, Burkman said.

Andrea Damewood: 360-735-4542 or andrea.damewood@columbian.com.