City council’s ethics talk reopens old wounds

New policy sought after infamous clash last fall

By Andrea Damewood, Columbian staff writer

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The wounds surrounding last September’s ethics investigation and reprimand of Vancouver City Councilor Jeanne Harris were clearly fresh on the minds of the city council Monday as it discussed changes to its 12-year-old ethics policy.

Though no formal decisions on the policy were made, the city council agreed Monday that instead of its forming an ad hoc committee of its own members — as it did last fall in its investigation of Harris’ “gavel down” clash with citizen speakers and Councilor Jeanne Stewart — any valid complaints would go before a hearings examiner or other neutral party. That person would then make a recommendation to the city council, which would take final action.

 “Here, it becomes too incestuous and too biased,” Harris said.

In September 2010, the city council formed a committee of three councilors — Larry Smith, Jack Burkman and Pat Campbell — to investigate claims that Harris violated a clause in the council’s ethics policy by failing to treat Mayor Tim Leavitt and Stewart with respect during a Sept. 13 meeting. Smith and Burkman filed the complaint. Based on a recommendation from the committee, the city council voted to strip Harris of all her council-appointed board and commission positions and offer a letter of reprimand.

The conversation grew tense Monday as the council again went over the events of last fall.

“Two people filed the complaint, the same people participated in the investigation and the same people benefitted from the action,” she said, referring to the fact that Smith and Burkman moved into seats she formerly held. “I have a hard time believing in the fairness of that.”

Harris called it a way to use an ethics investigation as a weapon, and pointed to a recent dustup in Battle Ground where two ethics complaints against Councilor Paul Zandamela were found to be lacking.

Smith, however, told Harris that Vancouver’s committee did exactly what the current policy prescribes, and “it served us well.”

“Again, it wasn’t my behavior — it was your behavior,” Smith said.

However, Campbell, who was on the ethics committee, said he felt the way Harris’ punishment was meted out was not fair.

“The process was too emotionally charged,” Campbell said, noting that Harris was out of the country and unable to respond to the charges personally. “Folks were sliming us with emails — just awful, hateful emails from all over the country.”

Councilor Stewart said she was “shocked” to hear Campbell say, nine months later, that Harris’ treatment was unfair.

“That needed to be said during the committee process. … It needed to be said when this came before the council for a decision,” Stewart said, pausing to continue.

Harris interrupted, saying, “It couldn’t be (said) because of the emotion.”

Campbell began to speak then, but Mayor Tim Leavitt stepped in, saying, “The past is the past. We’re moving forward here.”

Numerous changes

Ultimately, the council will also have to approve numerous changes in its seven-page ethics policy, approved in 1999 and unchanged since then. The proposed updated code includes changes in many sections, but the heavy focus will likely be on the section that includes city councilors’ interactions with each other and the public.

Right now, the policy reads, “Council Members will at all times treat each other with respect and dignity,” with no reference to citizens.

The updated code before council is much broader: “Council members shall refrain from abusive conduct, charges of a personal nature or verbal attacks upon the character or motives of other members of council, boards, commissions, committees, city staff, or the public.” It does not include definitions of what a “charge of a personal nature” or a “verbal attack” is.

Harris argued that ethics and conduct should be under two separate policies, as she believes ethics are more governed by laws, whereas conduct is more subjective. She asked what would happen under the new code if Leavitt got drunk and wandered down Main Street yelling about council members. She said that wouldn’t be an ethics violation, but it could be one that would violate conduct code.

City Attorney Ted Gathe said that it might not violate the new policy at all. He said that ethics and conduct overlap, and it would be difficult to separate the minimum level of ethics required by law — forbidding conflicts of interest, for example — and the higher standards of conduct included in the updated ethics code, such as prohibiting even the appearance of impropriety.

“I’m going to continue to argue that,” Harris said.

“The interest I have here is to see we develop a fair and reasonable policy, where we’re held to very high standards for ethics and personal conduct,” Stewart said. “Ethics and a code of conduct are very closely related.”

Andrea Damewood: 360-735-4542, andrea.damewood//twitter.com/col_cityhall.