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June 27, 2022

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New Clark County ethics board seats prove a tough sell

Clark County Council conduct panel has three open positions; one person has applied so far

By , Columbian staff writer
Published:

When Clark County voters turned in their ballots last November, it was clear they wanted the county council to adopt a code of ethics and independent review process for ethics violations. More than 67 percent of voters approved charter amendment No. 5.

Six months later, the county council has made progress but is struggling to staff the new ethics commission by the July 31 deadline set by the charter amendment.

The county council unanimously approved an ordinance creating a code of ethical conduct, ethics review commission and ethics oversight office on April 5. Soon after, County Manager Kathleen Otto began accepting applications for the new office.

So far, only one person has applied for the three-member, volunteer board. Otto said Friday that all three positions remain open. The application deadline, originally set for May 27, has been extended to June 24.

Otto said she will continue to accept applications until all the positions are filled, even if the deadline has passed.

“The commission will be responsible for receiving allegations regarding the Code of Ethics in Clark County Code 2.07.01 and determining if there is sufficient cause to warrant an investigation. If it determines there is sufficient cause to warrant an investigation, the commission will conduct the investigation. If the investigation substantiates a violation, the commission will determine the appropriate action,” Otto said by email.

One example of an ethics violation would be an employee or elected official using their position to benefit themselves, Otto said. Others, as defined by the county’s human resources policy, would be failing to disclose a conflict of interest, soliciting or accepting gifts, or concealing acts of wrongdoing.

According to the ordinance adopted by the county council, if an alleged ethics violation is found to have occurred, action by the committee can include public admonishment, public resolution of censure or any action allowed by law. If the commission finds a county employee violated the code of ethics, the county manager can take additional action as allowed by state law, county policy or collective bargaining agreement.

Commission members are expected to serve for three years. Initially, Commissioner 1 will serve a one-year term, Commissioner 2 will serve a two-year term and Commissioner 3 will serve a three-year term.

Applicants for the new commission must live in Clark County and “must be qualified in the area of ethical conduct in government,” Otto said.

Otto said the commission will meet as frequently as it deems necessary. Meetings will typically occur when an ethics complaint is filed.

The commission could have a complaint waiting to be investigated once it is formed. In February, Vancouver resident Rob Anderson alleged an ethics violation by Councilor Temple Lentz over statements she made ahead of a public hearing on a mini-initiative.

The council, which was short one member at the time, was unable to reach a majority vote to either dismiss the complaint or later send it to the commission for review. The council could revisit that decision now that it once again has five members, but “there has not been a motion to reconsider regarding the complaint,” Otto said. She said no other ethics complaints or allegations have been filed since.

Along with posting public notices for the commission openings on the county’s website and social media accounts, Otto said she has “forwarded this to the local Bar Association and will be forwarding it to professional human resource organizations as well as colleges.”

To apply, send a letter of interest and résumé to Michelle Pfenning, County Manager’s Office, P.O. Box 5000, Vancouver, WA 98666-5000 or michelle.pfenning@clark.wa.gov.

More information on Washington state law regarding ethics in public service can be found at https://bit.ly/3aVSvbB.

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