In Our View: Puzzling Conduct

Vancouver council on the right track with ethics policy, but why is it taking so long?

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We’ll start with the kudos: Members of the Vancouver City Council are to be applauded for hammering out a new ethics policy designed to help oversee their behavior. Considering that the council members are elected to represent the public and act in the best interests of the populace, it is reasonable to expect nothing less than decorum and above-board actions in the execution of their duties.

As philosopher Albert Camus said: “A man without ethics is a wild beast loosed upon this world.” We assume that applies to women, as well.

The council’s new policy will send any complaints that are deemed to have some validity to an impartial hearings examiner. This is a change from the past, when council members would conduct their own investigation, although councilors still will determine the punishment for a member who is found to be in violation of the ethics policy.

The addition of an impartial examiner also is worthy of kudos.

With that said, there are some points of contention within the new plan:

• The impartiality of the hearings examiner is a crucial aspect of the proposal. Regardless of the makeup of the final outline, transparency and impartiality will be essential for ensuring the effectiveness of the policy and the necessary public trust.

• Council members have held four workshops on the topic of a new ethics policy, and the final plan still has not been approved. We aren’t talking about solving the federal deficit. We aren’t talking about peace in the Middle East. We’re talking about behaving in an appropriate fashion, a rather simple ethos that could be addressed in a simple manner. We’re guessing the average third-grade class could set down guidelines for behavior and be finished in time for recess.

• Any new plan must be stronger than the previous policy. Following a recommendation from City Attorney Ted Gathe, the proposal no longer includes language that requires council members to treat each other with respect. According to a story in The Columbian by reporter Andrea Damewood, Gathe stressed that conduct is separate from ethics, and that such a provision does not appear in the ethics policies of most other Washington cities.

Conduct. Ethics. Now we’re talking about semantics, when we should be talking about councilors acting in the best interests of the public.

Not that anything about the Vancouver City Council is simple. Much of the pussyfooting around the policy is the result of an outburst by councilor Jeanne Harris last fall, an incident for which Harris ultimately was reprimanded and removed from her council-appointed boards and commissions.

At the time, Gathe identified the provision about treating council members with respect as the only recourse against Harris — which points out the necessity of such language. “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,” council member Jeanne Stewart said.

We agree. Mayor Tim Leavitt shrugged off the prospect of an ethics policy without a conduct code, and Councilor Jack Burkman said the topic will be addressed soon, but we wonder why four workshops on the matter have left a gaping hole in the policy.

It shouldn’t be that difficult. As novelist Alexander Solzhenitsyn said: “Even the most rational approach to ethics is defenseless if there isn’t the will to do what is right.”

That is the crux of the issue: The will to do what is right. As representatives of the public, as elected officials, as the people entrusted with providing an outline for the future of the city, councilors should be expected to have the will to do what is right. It doesn’t seem terribly complicated.