Clark County residents will get their first look at a proposed county ordinance establishing a new code of ethics and ethics review commission at an April 5 public hearing. The ordinance could look quite different from what the voters had in mind when they asked for it.
Former charter review commissioner Terri Niles said the charter amendment voters approved was modeled after Pierce County’s robust code of ethics. But the ordinance drafted by County Manager Kathleen Otto doesn’t reflect that.
“It was astonishing to me that they haven’t even looked at that, and that Kathleen Otto hadn’t shared that with them, because she was part of our charter review meetings. She knows that was expected,” Niles said.
When Charter Amendment No. 5 was passed by voters in November – with more than 67 percent in favor – it gave the county council until July 31 to adopt an ordinance establishing a code of ethics and to set penalties for violations of the code that applies to all county departments and elected officials. The amendment also requires the creation of an autonomous review commission and ethics oversight office, which will operate an ethics complaint hotline. Both the commission and oversight office will be managed through the county manager’s office.
While the amendment specifies that qualified individuals in the area of ethical conduct in government will be appointed to the commission, it does not specify how detailed the code of ethics must be, nor how the oversight office will be staffed or funded.
“We wanted to give county council discretion to write that code,” Niles said. “We wanted to trust they would do the right thing.”
The first draft of the ordinance reviewed by the county council on Feb. 23 contained the details Niles and other members of the charter review commission had expected. For example, the draft ordinance stated elected officials and county employees could not “use their position to secure special privileges or exemptions” and could not give or receive any kind of compensation, gift or reward for performing the duties.
The draft ordinance specified the number of members of the ethics review commission and established that at least one member must be a Washington-licensed attorney and one member must be employed in or retired from the private sector.
The draft ordinance also specified what would happen if a violation occurs, including public admonishment, public resolution of censure, removal from all committees, or other actions allowed by state law.
Yet by the time a third draft was presented to the county council for review on March 9, most of that language had been stripped out. The revised version instead states the county “adheres to the requirements of state law… and Clark County human resource policy.” Any elected official or county employee alleged to be in violation of those standards is subject to review by the ethics commission.
The revised ordinance does state the ethics commission will consist of three members, but no longer requires anyone to be an attorney or have private-sector experience.
“Obviously state law still applies. To the extent that somebody violates the state law, that’s going to apply irregardless of whatever is done with this ethics review commission,” Lindsey Hueer, senior policy analyst for the county, said during the Feb. 23 meeting. “The council is free to make those as stringent or as narrow or broad or as less stringent as you would like.”
County Councilor Julie Olson said she realizes some people may think removing the language from the ordinance will weaken it, but said that’s just not the case. By removing specific language, Olson said the ordinance can be applied more broadly.
“People are going to do and say dumb things, and we may not like them, but that’s why we don’t reelect them. I don’t know what we would add ethically that would be more stringent than state law or more stringent than our (human resources) code,” Olson said. “Sometimes it’s more limiting to have all that language in there.”
The public hearing on the ordinance begins at 10 a.m. on April 5. For an agenda or meeting links, go to https://clark.wa.gov/councilors/clark-county-council-meetings.