I reported last night that the City Council was contemplating changing the city’s ethics code to exempt itself from recusal for financial conflicts of interest. At this morning’s committee meeting, four Council members discussed it, and while they didn’t abandon the idea, they decided to think it over more carefully before moving forward.
Council President Harrell and Council members Herbold, Bagshaw and Mosqueda discussed the matter with Wayne Barnett, Executive Director of the Seattle Ethics and Elections Commission (SEEC). Bagshaw explained that she had first raised the issue in 2014, when she chaired the Council’s waterfront committee. Bagshaw owns a condo two blocks from the waterfront, within the boundaries of a proposed Local Improvement District. The SEEC issued an opinion, at Bagshaw’s request, as to whether her property interest was a conflict of interest that required her to recuse herself from participation in Waterfront LID – related issues. They decided that it is.
The current ethics code provides for an exemption from the recusal rule when the interest is shared with a “substantial segment” of the city’s residents. That certainly isn’t true for the Waterfront LID. However, a substantial segment of Bagshaw’s District 7 might share that interest. Former Council member Tim Burgess previously proposed that the code be changed to allow for exemptions for district-based Council members if a substantial segment of the district shares the interest.
The problem is that the ethics code doesn’t define what constitutes a “substantial segment.” Barnett said today that this was intentionally left vague when the ethics code was written so that it could be interpreted within the context of a particular issue rather than uniformly. On the other end of the extreme, the bill as currently proposed would allow Council members to participate and vote even on a bill that just affected themselves, just by publicly disclosing it; none of the Council members seemed comfortable with that.
The four Council members had differing views on how to resolve the issue. Bagshaw was less concerned with the specific resolution, so long as she is able to participate in waterfront LID legislation and the SEEC approves.
Harrell believes that a Council member should be able to “participate,” go to meetings, and listen to testimony, but should be prohibited from voting when a financial interest exists (but not if the interest is the Council member’s alone). He has run into similar issues related to the University of Washington because of his wife’s relationship with the university.
Herbold embraced Burgess’s proposal to create a district-based exemption. Barnett, however, was concerned that very little data is kept on a per-district basis, which would make such a rule unwieldy to administer. Herbold wanted to explore it further, arguing that two years into the district-based Council model, the city is now administering many things differently (and departments are getting used to the Council asking for district-based data).
Mosqueda, who holds one of the two city-wide Council positions, took issue with defining the issue as district-based versus city-wide, and with Bagshaw’s assertion that if she were recused then the residents of District 7 would have no direct representation. She pushed for the Council to move away from trying to fashion a district-based solution.
Nevertheless, the consensus view was that they needed to do more thinking — and more homework. Barnett agreed to bring the issue to the next meeting of the SEEC the first week of April and hold a discussion of Burgess’s proposed exemption based upon an interest shared by a “substantial segment” of a district’s residents.
So for the moment, the proposed change is back on the shelf until the SEEC comes back with new guidance — which could happen as soon as next month.