In June 2016 the City Council considered an update to the city’s conflict of interest rules that would allow Council members to continue to participate in a legislative act in which she or he has a conflict of interest if that conflict is publicly disclosed first. After a contentious debate, it was referred back to committee, where it has languished for almost two years. This week it will be revived and get another hearing in committee.
The argument for: since the Council has switched to a (mostly) district-based system, if a Council member representing a district recuses herself or himself, then that district’s constituents lose representation on the issue. The proposed “fix,” allowing Council members to still participate once their conflict is publicly disclosed, maintains that representation.
The arguments against:
- The “fix” assumes that simply disclosing the conflict is enough to keep the Council member honest, because presumably there will be consequences to inappropriate action in full daylight. However, the only consequences would be electoral (a recall, or getting voted out of office at the next scheduled election for that position), and for a Council member who doesn’t plan to run for re-election or is near the beginning of a four-year term, those consequences are nonexistent. Even if they do exist, electoral consequences are a very high (and delayed) bar to reach to keep a legislator honest.
- Every resident of Seattle is actually represented by three Council members: one district-based, and two city-wide (currently Council members Mosqueda and Gonzalez). If a district-based Council member is recused, that district’s residents still have two other Council members accountable to them. That’s one less representation than the three Council members every other resident would have on that particular issue, but they are hardly unrepresented.
- It makes absolutely no sense to extend the exemption to the two city-wide Council members, since recusing themselves does not change the relative representation of any Seattle resident compared to any others.
- Conflicts of interest are serious matters, and the bar needs to be kept as high as possible to protect the integrity of our city government.
Beyond the reasons why this remains a bad idea, it’s also a poorly-chosen moment in time to pursue this, given the state Legislature’s recent attempt to grant itself an exemption from the statewide public disclosure rules, Also, we can’t forget the Trump Administration’s myriad conflicts of interest and the federal government’s unwillingness to police itself. This is not a good time for elected officials to be saying, “Hey, let’s give ourselves more slack on the ethics rules.”
Last time this was considered, the strongest voice in opposition was former Council member Tim Burgess, who circulated a memo to his colleagues arguing against it. With Burgess no longer on the Council, we will have to see how the remaining Council members — and newest Council member Teresa Mosqueda — choose to approach the issue.
Since being a Council member is a full-time job, most Council members don’t have a lot of potential financial conflicts of interest. They would tend to come from family members’ employment, or from side businesses (for example, Council member O’Brien is a landlord, which he regularly discloses before participating in tenant rights legislation).
The bill came up the first time, and has been revived now, at the request of Council member Sally Bagshaw, who has been active in the work in reshaping the Seattle waterfront and in the proposed waterfront Local Improvement District (LID) that will come before the Council later this year. Bagshaw lives in the proposed LID area, and thus has a financial interest at stake both in any taxes levied and in what the infrastructure investments will do to her property value.
This raises an interesting question as to whether officials have a conflict of interest when their financial interest is common to large numbers of Seattle residents. If having to pay a new tax (imposed broadly) is a conflict, then the eight Council members who own homes would never be able to vote on a property tax. The ethics code already provides an exemption in this case, “if the prohibited financial interest is shared with a substantial segment of the City’s population.” Two years ago, when the district-based system was still new, Bagshaw wanted to understand how the ethics code applied to her work on the waterfront. “I went to the ethics board,” she told me in an interview earlier this evening, “and was told that I would not be able to vote on anything related to the waterfront.” That didn’t seem right to her, so she asked Wayne Barnett, Director of the Seattle Ethics and Elections Commission, to suggest appropriate amendments to the code. “I wanted their approval.” The proposed legislation was subsequently brought forward by Barnett. Needless to say, it has the approval of his Commission.
Two years ago, Burgess suggested an alternative change to the ethics code that extended the current exemption to when the interest is shared with a substantial segment of a district-based Council member’s district (rather than the city as a whole). However, it’s still unclear what constitutes a “substantial segment” of the population of the city or a district. The Seattle Ethics and Elections Commission has previously ruled that 30% of the population is substantial, while 5% is not. That suggests a LID that affects a few thousand people wouldn’t be a financial interest shared by a “substantial segment” of the residents of Bagshaw’s district, and Bagshaw would still need to recuse herself even under Burgess’s suggested alternative.
In this morning’s Council Briefing, Harrell said he expected to have a discussion and possible vote in tomorrow’s committee meeting, though he seemed unsure of the outcome. Given the statewide backlash to the state legislature’s attempt to exempt itself from disclosure laws, it will be interesting to see whether the Council has the stomach to follow suit and exempt itself from its own recusal rules.