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Committee says Harris should be reprimanded, removed from boards

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The Vancouver City Council ethics committee met Thursday for an hour to discuss the possible punishment of Councilor Jeanne Harris for her actions during a Sept. 13 council meeting.
The Vancouver City Council ethics committee met Thursday for an hour to discuss the possible punishment of Councilor Jeanne Harris for her actions during a Sept. 13 council meeting. Photo Gallery

An ethics committee decided Thursday to recommend the Vancouver City Council give Councilor Jeanne Harris a written reprimand and remove her from boards she was appointed to by the council for her role in an explosive council meeting Sept. 13.

The full city council, with Harris excluded, will make a final decision on the committee’s recommendation on Oct. 11. Any punishment would be effective immediately after that vote, City Attorney Ted Gathe said.

During the hour-long meeting, Councilors Larry Smith, Pat Campbell and Jack Burkman found Harris violated the council’s ethics policy three separate times at the Sept. 13 meeting.

They used words like “verbal abuse,” “disturbing” and “highly inappropriate” to describe Harris’ actions that day, when she fought with citizens and Councilor Jeanne Stewart, and also tried to interfere with Mayor Tim Leavitt’s control of the meeting.

“I feel demeaned and disrespected in the way she was treating others,” Campbell said. “Just being there as a member of a body, I feel it was totally disrespectful.”

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.

Her outburst has sparked outrage from citizens, who have called for her resignation or removal from the city council. It’s been featured in national news and received more than 85,000 views on YouTube.

Burkman and Smith filed the investigation request the day after the meeting; it is the first since the council passed its ethics policy in 1999.

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.

The council reviewed video of the incident, several e-mails sent to the council by Harris following the meeting and an interview Harris gave on conservative talk show host Lars Larson’s show.

‘Totally out of line’

The ethics investigation hinged on one line in the city council’s ethics policy — “Council members will at all times treat each other with respect and dignity.”

While the committee said that Harris was “totally out of line” in the way she interacted with citizens, they noted there is nothing in the policy that allows them to censure her for mistreatment of the public.

“I wish there was a section in (the policy) so we could deal with that, but there isn’t,” Burkman said.

As part of their recommendation to the full city council, the committee agreed to revisit adding wording about respecting members of the public to the ethics policy.

However, they found that Harris violated the policy to treat council members with respect three times: twice with Stewart and once with Leavitt.

Harris, fed up with anti-tolling and anti-light-rail comments from citizens, repeatedly demanded that Leavitt “gavel down” one speaker and left the room when he did not. She also interrupted two separate citizen speakers and told one of them he was dismissed and must leave.

She also quarreled with Stewart during and after the meeting. Harris called into question Stewart’s motives for defending the anti-tolling speakers, saying that Stewart was in collusion with them. When Stewart said that was not the case, Harris scoffed, “Get out of here.” After the meeting, she told Stewart to “shut up” after Stewart told her to “fix herself” and to “get sane.”

The three councilors also touched upon Harris’ formal apology, issued on Sept. 15. About a half hour after sending out that message, she sent another to the city council — and included the line “thanks for making my life hell.”

“Recognize its your fault, you control your own behavior,” Smith said. “Remember, Ms. Harris is a senior council member. She’s been on the council since 1996 and should know better.”

Cannot remove Harris

The committee then moved on to potential punishment.

For the city council to remove Harris, 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, Gathe explained.

“Beyond that, the threshold is very high for removal,” he said. “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.

The committee weighed a private verbal admonition from the mayor, a public written reprimand or a public verbal censure. A censure holds the greatest weight, but would have required a 20-day notification to Harris. A letter of reprimand may be written immediately, so the committee chose it.

“It’s in the better interest to the community to move this ahead and bring closure,” Burkman said.

They then decided to remove her from her council-appointed boards. Smith is the alternate board member for C-Tran, meaning he would likely assume her position.

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Harris critical

Harris has called her actions “disruptive” and “out of character,” but also said that Stewart provoked her, and explained she is also going through a difficult divorce.

She called the ethics investigation “rash and uncalled for” in a Sept. 14 e-mail.

Later, she also criticized Leavitt’s handling of the situation between her and the public.

“The mayor should be controlling the meeting,” she wrote in a Sept. 21 e-mail. “It’s his job to keep the meeting a safe place for everyone, council, staff and citizens. He wasn’t doing that, and I was feeling threatened, so I reacted.

“I meant the apology and still do, nothing was intended to erase the apology. I don’t think Burkman or Smith realized what the repercussions to me would be. Burkman said he thought he should do it to show people the council can monitor itself. Trying to make a point has been devastating for my life.”

After the ethics committee adjourned, Anne McEnerny-Ogle, who was Harris’ opponent in last fall’s election, reacted with wide eyes. But she said she was pleased with the results.

“This is major, I was not expecting them to pull her from her boards,” she said. “She was supposed to be chairing the (Regional Transportation Council) in January.”

McEnerny-Ogle said she’s faced similar wrath from Harris in the past.

“She’s been doing this for years, this is the time she got caught,” she said. “Her disdain for her colleagues and the public has been known for a long time.”

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

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