Wednesday, January 29, 2020
Jan. 29, 2020

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Ethics panel will check into city councilor’s outburst

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A mayor-appointed committee will hold public meetings to investigate possible ethics violations by Vancouver City Councilor Jeanne Harris when she argued with citizens and a fellow council member during a council meeting Sept. 13.

The blow-back from Harris’ outburst has been felt for a week, with a YouTube video of her eruption cresting 17,000 views and more than 20 people coming before the council Monday night to condemn her actions. Harris appeared — and took a verbal beating — on the shows of conservative radio hosts Lars Larson and Victoria Taft.

Harris, fed up with anti-tolling and anti-light-rail comments from citizens, repeatedly demanded that Mayor Tim Leavitt “gavel down” one speaker and left the room when he did not. She also quarreled with Councilor Jeanne Stewart during and after the meeting, telling Stewart to “shut up” after Stewart told her to “fix herself” and to “get sane.”

Councilors Larry Smith and Jack Burkman requested an ethics violation investigation the day after the incendiary meeting; in response, Mayor Tim Leavitt appointed Smith, Burkman and Councilor Pat Campbell to investigate. A staff member appointed by the city manager will also be part of the committee.

The committee will take “adequate time for a complete and thorough investigation,” and provide an advisory opinion to the full city council, City Attorney Ted Gathe said. Then, council members will decide what action to take, from no action to admonition to recalling her position, depending on the seriousness of the committee’s findings, he said.

Harris issued a public apology after the meeting, saying she “behaved in a manner that is not normal for me,” and wished to apologize to the council, the mayor and the public. In an e-mail, she also called the ethics investigation “rash and uncalled for” especially “without talking to me first and hearing my side of the story.”

Harris has also said that she felt she was provoked subtly by Stewart into losing her temper and has said that she is going through a very difficult divorce.

Stewart earlier said she was disappointed with the loss of professionalism during the encounter.

Harris, who has been on the council since 1996, was not at the meeting Monday night and will not be back for several weeks; she is on a privately-funded John Jay McCloy fellowship through the International Council of National League of Cities to travel Germany with city leaders from around the United States.

Numerous speakers called for Harris to resign or for the council to remove her from the board Monday.

“If you do not terminate Ms. Harris, I for one will do my best to terminate you next time there’s an election,” Vancouver resident Ralph Peabody said.

“I have never seen anything approaching last week,” Tom Laidlaw said. “I don’t believe (Harris’) apology saying this isn’t really like her, because it’s like her.”

While a few came forward to express their support for the ethics panel, one speaker, state Rep. Jim Moeller, spoke in Harris’ defense. He said that her actions and words were both indiscreet and disrespectful, but they were “not even close” to being unethical. He called the incident being human, as opposed to perfect.

“Politics is not for sissies — her feelings happened and it’s unfortunate,” said Moeller, a Democrat who sat on the Vancouver City Council from 1995 until his election to the 49th Legislative District seat in 2002. “Words have left my mouth that if I could have reached out and brought them back, I would have.”

Many others expressed concern about potential limitations to what may be discussed in citizens’ communications, saying their First Amendment rights were being violated. Gathe has said that a city council meeting is not a public forum and is not subject to the same Constitutional rights — the mayor has the authority to preside over the meeting.

Leavitt said at the end of the lengthy meeting that he has no intention to restrict what residents may speak about.

“It’s our preference that you’ll come talk to us about city-related business,” that the council has direct control over, he said, noting that the locally preferred alternative indicating the council’s approval for a new bridge with light rail was approved two years ago.

The first meeting of the ethics committee will include a decision on how many meetings they will hold. All meetings will be advertised and public.

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

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