Bellevue council split on conflict-of-interest rule
Bellevue City Council members are divided on what to define as a conflict of interest in a new ethics code.
Seattle Times staff reporter
Bellevue City Council members, writing a long-awaited ethics code to govern their own conduct, are deeply divided over what constitutes a conflict of interest.
The council is split along the same fault line that defined an earlier battle over the proposed route of light rail through Bellevue.
That bitter debate in 2010 and 2011 was punctuated by claims from citizens and some council members that participation in the decision by other members conflicted with their outside interests.
Even before investigations were launched into alleged conflicts involving three council members, the council agreed it was time for the city to adopt its own ethics code.
The council will resume deliberations on a proposed ethics ordinance Tuesday — two weeks after it approved an amendment that would severely reduce the scope of the ordinance and, in the view of some members, render it meaningless.
“We gutted this ethics ordinance, and I would just recommend that we not spend a lot of time trying to perfect the remains of the Titanic since it has already sunk,” Councilmember Claudia Balducci declared after voting against the amendment.
City ethics codes vary widely.
Bellevue now relies on state law to define conflicts of interest for council members and members of boards and commissions. Many smaller cities do the same, simply telling council members to follow state law.
Kirkland adopted a code last year that prohibits officials from participating in any government action that would substantially benefit them, unless more than 10 percent of city residents also would benefit.
Seattle has a tough ethics law and an Ethics and Elections Commission that advises officials on their obligations and fines violators.
Balducci said in an interview that Bellevue needs a “very clear, strong ethics standard ... so that all of the public we represent can be assured we’re looking at these decisions from the perspective of what’s best for the public, not for ourselves.”
Councilmember Jennifer Robertson said she offered the amended language May 13 because the original wording would have made it difficult for many people to serve on Bellevue’s part-time City Council or its volunteer boards and commissions.
The original wording, borrowed from Kirkland, said an official shall not participate in government decisions in which the official or a relative has a financial interest.
Robertson’s amendment would only prohibit council members’ participation in quasi-judicial matters, site-specific land-use decisions and contracts if an official had a personal interest.
A blanket prohibition on participating in any kind of decision, Robertson said, would make it difficult for a lawyer who represents developers to serve on the council or an advisory commission — and would prevent her from voting on a rezone of her own Somerset neighborhood.
“We want our council members who are elected by the people to be able to serve to the maximum extent possible, except when there is a very clear conflict,” Robertson said.
The council approved Robertson’s amendment 4-2, with Robertson, Mayor Conrad Lee and Councilmembers John Stokes and Kevin Wallace in favor, and Balducci and Councilmember John Chelminiak opposed.
Councilmember Don Davidson was on leave for health reasons.
Robertson and Wallace said the emerging ethics code — which, as amended, largely reiterates state law — would provide needed clarity about what conduct is prohibited.
Without Robertson’s amendment, Wallace said, “We’d be reaching out far beyond state code provisions and creating an entirely new, undefined standard.”
Balducci disputes that, saying many cities and counties have adopted stricter conflict-of-interest rules, without problem.
Robertson’s amendment could allow conflicts of interest in votes on a light-rail route and in upcoming deliberations on downtown zoning, shoreline regulations and location of a Sound Transit light-rail maintenance facility, Balducci said.
Stokes, the council’s newest member, surprised some colleagues by voting for the amendment after asking Robertson a number of critical questions and saying at one point, “It just kind of seems to me it vitiates the heart of this.”
But the law is “a work in progress,” Stokes said, and he hopes the council can find language that addresses the concerns of both Balducci and Robertson.
“I just want something that works, that people can have confidence in but that doesn’t overreact to anything,” Stokes said.
Chelminiak said Robertson’s amendment takes the council “right back to where we were except for one thing: We’ve laid out all the goodies we get. ...
“It’s not why I ran for the City Council — a sad day.”
The council has yet to discuss parts of the code that govern what gifts council members can accept, and provisions creating an ethics officer to enforce the law.
Several council members, including Chelminiak and Robertson, had called for adoption of a city ethics policy in 2011, after the city hired a lawyer to investigate whether Balducci, Wallace and then-Councilmember Grant Degginger had interests that conflicted with their participation in decisions on light-rail alignment.
The investigator, Jeffrey Coopersmith, found no violations of state law but warned that Balducci, a Sound Transit Board member, couldn’t participate in possible future closed discussions of both the City Council and the transit board on litigation between the jurisdictions.
Wallace did not have a legal conflict by seeking to route light rail along an old rail corridor while he was involved in undisclosed business negotiations with the now-defunct GNP Railway, which hoped to someday to operate trains in the same corridor, Coopersmith concluded.
Coopersmith also found Wallace was not precluded under state law from voting on a downtown rail route even though his parents owned properties on or near several routes under consideration.
Degginger was investigated because he had once represented Sound Transit in a lawsuit and other members of his law firm continued to represent the agency.
Keith Ervin: 206-464-2105 or firstname.lastname@example.org