Vancouver council poised to adopt new ethics policy

Members will turn attention to personal conduct guidelines

By Andrea Damewood, Columbian staff writer




Previously: The Vancouver City Council spent four meetings discussing changes to its ethics policy, first drafted in 1999.

What’s new: The council worked out an ethics policy and system for investigation and punishment of councilors found to violate the policy.

What’s next: A code of personal conduct, which was removed from the ethics policy, still needs to be discussed and perhaps placed in a different section of the city council’s policy.

Vancouver City Council’s proposed ethics complaint review policy

A complaint is filed with the city manager and the city council.

The complaint is provided to the city attorney for a threshold review. The threshold review is to determine whether the complaint, if true, constitutes a potential violation of the code of ethics.

After receiving the city attorney’s written report, the council has the option of dismissing the complaint or referring the complaint to a hearings examiner for investigation.

n If the complaint is referred for investigation, the hearings officer has up to 60 days to complete the investigation. The councilmember accused of the ethical violation has the right to review all of the information available to the hearings officer and to respond in writing to the complaint, which the hearings officer shall take into consideration in issuing the report to council.

n After council and the manager receive the report, it must be sent to the complainant and the councilmember against whom the complaint has been filed.

n Within 15 business days thereafter, council must meet to review the report and take action. Action includes a finding of no violation, remanding the matter back to the hearings officer for more information, or finding a violation, in which case the council must adopt written findings, conclusion and sanctions.

n The city manager has five business days to transmit the council’s action to the complainant and to the affected councilmember. The sanction is then stayed for a 10-day period in order to allow the affected councilmember the option of accepting the council’s decision or requesting a review of the decision, in which case the councilmember may file a written statement challenging the council’s decision.

n Based on the information received, the council may affirm its decision, modify its decision or reverse its decision. In any event, the council’s action is final and not subject to further appeal.

After four meetings on the topic, the Vancouver City Council appeared satisfied Monday with its new ethics policy — but the touchy subject of regulating councilors’ personal conduct still remains.

The council worked out an ethics policy that favors sending any valid complaints about a council member to an impartial hearings examiner, rather than having members of the city council conduct an investigation, as has been done in the past. The responsibility for choosing a punishment for a councilor found guilty of an ethics violation, however, still lies in the hands of the seven-person council.

But the council’s new ethics policy, which is set for adoption in an upcoming meeting, no longer includes regulations on councilor’s personal conduct. Following a recommendation from City Attorney Ted Gathe, the council pulled language that requires council members to treat each other with respect from the ethics policy. Conduct is not along the same lines as ethics, and also does not appear in most other Washington cities’ ethics policies, Gathe said.

That language about respect was what Councilor Jeanne Harris was censured for violating following her outburst against a citizen speaker and members of the council at a meeting last September. At the time, Gathe identified that wording as the only possible recourse for the council to punish Harris, who demanded that the mayor “gavel down” an anti-Columbia River Crossing speaker and exchanged sharp words with Councilor Jeanne Stewart before leaving the council chambers. Harris was ultimately given a letter of reprimand and removed from her council-appointed boards and commissions.

Citizens at the time expressed outrage that the council policy had nothing to require councilors to treat members of the public with respect — thus far, no language about conduct regarding citizens has been mentioned in the workshops.

“It is almost a farce to say we’re serious about that and yet not have a way as a council to deal with it,” Stewart said Monday night.

Harris, however, said she wants to talk about whether the city council needs a code of conduct at all.

“There’s a cause and effect,” Harris said. “We talk about the effect, but not about the cause.”

The council, however, asked City Manager Eric Holmes to schedule a workshop to talk about where a code of conduct could be put in the council’s policy, and also about the wording of that code. Gathe promised to send them examples of such codes from other cities.

Councilor Jack Burkman said he’ll support the ethics policy without a conduct code because they will talk about conduct soon. He agreed with Harris that a conduct code could also focus more on positive ways to interact, rather than focusing on the negative.

“Let’s talk about how we can work together best,” he said.

Should the council adopt its ethics code before putting a code of conduct somewhere else, Vancouver — at least for a short time — will have no personal code of conduct for council members.

Mayor Tim Leavitt seemed to shrug off that prospect.

“Lord help us if we don’t have conduct policy,” he said. “I say that tongue in cheek.”

The new ethics policy also gives a set timeline and provides several steps for an accused council member to review, respond to and appeal any violations, something Councilor Jeanne Harris said she was not given the opportunity to do when she was found to have committed an ethics violation. Harris, who left shortly after the Sept. 13 meeting for a monthlong fellowship in Germany, said she wasn’t given the chance to defend herself.

Ethics complaints will also have a three-year statute of limitations; Gathe said that the more serious allegations of ethics violations that include a potential crime could still fall under state criminal laws.

Andrea Damewood: 360-735-4542 or or or http://