City Attorney Ted Gathe and City Manager Eric Holmes

City Attorney Ted Gathe and City Manager Eric Holmes

The Vancouver City Council continued a review of its Ethics and Conduct Policy Monday night, with City Attorney Ted Gathe and Policy Development Manager Jan Bader leading the council through proposed changes that picked up where a prior discussion in June left off – that council members charging another council member with a violation were also the ones sitting on the ethics review committee.

To solve that conflict of interest, council members determined that a hearing examiner would review alleged ethics and conduct violations instead of fellow council members. The examiner would report back to the council but would not be asked to provide an opinion on how the council should proceed. From there, the entire council would participate in the ethics proceedings and findings, and would have knowledge of who lodged the complaint, as any complaint must be provided in writing to not only the council but – with the discussed revisions – also the city manager’s office. They also agreed to limit the timeframe a violation complaint can be submitted to three years.

Although Gathe said in his introduction that they would decide how potential conduct violations would be resolved, no official remedies were adopted other than the informal consequences that the mayor noted which are already in place: Facing negative public opinion, the criticism of fellow council members, and contending with potentially being voted out of office.

Councilwoman Jeanne Stewart reacted to the lack of outlined sanctions by saying, “It’s almost a farce to say that we’re serious,” preferring that the council discuss formal remedies.

Councilman Bart Hansen read city code from his smartphone, saying with a two-thirds vote the council has the ability to punish and expel its members for “disorderly, contemptuous behavior.” Gathe gave his opinion that any behavior short of “outrageous” would not be covered by the guideline Hansen referenced, and said “egregious” is in the eye of the beholder.

Mayor Leavitt polled the council whether or not the conduct section should be removed from the ethics section and placed instead in the meetings section. Councilman Larry Smith said he was torn about where to locate it. Councilman Pat Campbell thought it was appropriate in the meeting section. Councilman Jack Burkman recommended moving the conduct section out of the ethics policy, and advised they discuss it separately.

“I don’t know where it should be moved to, but it shouldn’t be here,” said Councilwoman Jeanne Harris, referring to the draft, which places the conduct policy inside the ethics code.

Leavitt summarized that conduct and ethics are two completely separate matters, and said conduct ought to be removed from the ethics code, effectively leaving the council to function without standards on how to address their peers or the public until a policy on conduct is adopted.

As to sanctions of an elected official’s personal behavior, Leavitt said, “I have yet to hear a compelling argument for having a process in place.”

“What would we do if the situation was really bad?” Stewart asked. “That was one of the important things we were going to do in a review.”

“Lord help us, if we don’t have a conduct policy,” Leavitt stated, and quickly added, “I say that tongue in check.”

Harris seemed to agree, “Yeah, I don’t see what the big deal is.”

(PDF of City Council Code of Ethics established in 1999: