An ethical dilemma

Wednesday afternoon the Council’s  Education, Education and Governance Committee considered a change to their rules around financial disclosures and recusals, because while the need for them hasn’t changed, the context in which they are happening has.

Specifically, the Council now has seven district-based positions (and two city-wide ones) where before they had nine city-wide positions. This is important, because every citizen of Seattle knows the three Council members who represent their interests: the two city-wide Council members and the one their district elected. But if a district representative recuses himself or herself from an issue before the Council, the citizens of that district no longer have equal representation compared to citizens of other district. Under the old system, since all Council members represented the entire city, recusals couldn’t skew representation.

This can be deeply problematic: for example, Council members are supposed to be recused from participating in zoning decisions that would affect their own homes. But in that case the Council members can’t represent their own districts at the very times they need it most: when issues directly affecting their districts are being considered.

The Seattle Ethics and Election Committee sees this as a serious enough issue that they brought forward a proposal to change the rules for recusals due to financial interests. Under the new rule, a City Council member (and only City Council members) may participate in a legislative matter in which they have a financial interest, if:

  • he or she discloses the interest in public session before participating;
  • he or she files a written copy of the disclosure with the City Clerk and the Executive Director of the Seattle Ethics and Election Committee;
  • he or she repeats the disclosure in public session in every subsequent meeting in which the legislative matter comes up.

Council members may still choose to recuse themselves, but they now have an option not to, so long as they are completely transparent to the public.

It is quite the dilemma: we are forced to choose between allowing an elected official with a material interest to influence the outcome (albeit with transparency), or to allow unequal representation of citizens’ interests. It raises the key question: is transparency enough to force accountability and good behavior for people who hold power?  Under the old rule, there are penalties for failing to recuse oneself when a material interest exists; under the new system there would be penalties for failing to properly disclose a material interest, but none for voting one’s personal interest after making the proper disclosure. Will public scrutiny alone be enough to keep the Council members honest when they know they aren’t running for re-election?

We will probably find out; the change to the ethics rules passed out of committee this week and will go before the full Council next Monday for final approval.