The guidelines for Mercer Island’s elected officials, as well as the procedures for investigating them, are becoming a little more clearly defined. The city council at its Nov. 19 meeting reviewed staff proposed revisions to the city’s code of ethics.
The proposed revisions were presented by assistant to the city manager Ali Spietz. She took some questions from council members and provided some clarification, but then the council decided it would be best for them each to send their questions and feedback to Spietz individually and have her bring the updated revisions back for a second reading and potential adoption at the Dec. 3 meeting.
The city council adopted a code of ethics in 2018 to provide guidance and accountability for city officials — members of the city council, members of city boards and commissions, and the city manager. The code also includes a code of ethics statement that officials agree to and sign when appointed or taking office.
After receiving ethics complaints from community members earlier this year, it became apparent that the city needed to define a process for reviewing and investigating complaints as well as determining if any ethics code violations had indeed occurred and the process for delivering a ruling.
Changes include clarifying the process for responding to a complaint as well as removing references to state laws that the city is not an authority to investigate and therefore create confusion. (Mayor Debbie Bertlin had been found in violation of the code of ethics section pertaining to compliance with state laws back in August.)
The revisions also include adding four new sections of guidance on the acceptance of gifts, interest in contracts, incompatible service, and disclosure of personal or private interests.
The amendments create a position of an ethics officer, responsible for timely and fair enforcement of the code. That officer also would review and recommend edits to the code and training materials. Anyone can submit a written complaint alleging violation of the code of ethics by a public official to the ethics officer through the city clerk.
When a complaint is received, the ethics officer will make a determination of sufficiency within 30 days. The complaint will be dismissed if insufficient, inadvertent or already addressed. If the complaint is deemed sufficient, the ethics officer will conduct an investigation.
If the ethics officer determines there has been a material violation, a hearing will take place with the hearing examiner, who will determine if there has been a code violation. The hearing examiner will prepare a record of the hearing, including all testimony, and will issue a final decision within 30 days. They will deliver findings, conclusions and recommendations.
Then the city council can take action. The council will consider the recommendations of the hearing examiner and the ethics officer during an executive session. The official in question cannot participate. Final action will be by majority vote in a public meeting.
Various council actions include dismissal, referring to another agency, admonition, reprimand, censure, removal, civil penalties and void contract.
The city plans to utilize the Seattle Ethics and Elections Commission for the role of ethics officer, as does the city of Kirkland. The city will contract with a local lawyer for hearing examiner.
Public officials also could request an advisory opinion from the ethics officer considering the applicability of the ethics code to hypothetical situations and actions — concerning only themselves and not other officials — and can receive that opinion verbally or in writing to produce a record. Conduct in accordance with a recorded advisory opinion would not be found in violation of the code of ethics.
There was some discussion around the potential city cost for officials requesting advisory opinions, and the possibility of routing those requests first through the city attorney’s office was suggested.
Deputy Mayor Salim Nice mentioned that the process needs to be clear for when the new council is seated and that there should be checks before questions unknowingly lead to costs.
Interim city manager Jessi Bon expressed that dealing with weighing ethics considerations creates a difficulty for staff.
“We’re trying to off load this from staff in the most complete way possible,” Bon said. “Putting staff in any position, even as a gatekeeper, creates challenges.”
Staff will bring the final version of the ordinance revising the code of ethics back for adoption in the consent calendar at the Dec. 3 city council meeting. Staff then will work with the Seattle Ethics and Elections Commissions to designate the ethics officer and with a local lawyer to fill the hearing examiner role.
“Other ethics codes out there are a lot longer than ours — they’re extremely prescriptive,” Spietz said. “My goal was to be as succinct as possible.”
The city’s code of ethics can be read in full on the city’s website (https://mercerisland.municipal.codes/MICC/2.60) and the proposed ethics code revisions can be found in the Nov. 19 council meeting agenda packet. (http://www.mercergov.org/Page.asp?NavID=2811)