Code of ethics discussion heats up at city council meeting

One member said he smelled a ‘cover-up’ within a violation complaint.

A Mercer Island City Council video meeting that featured a discussion on code of ethics amendments turned the dial on that aspect of local government up a few notches on Jan. 19. It has also sparked a robust discourse on Mercer Island Nextdoor since residents viewed the meeting.

In an intense moment, councilmember Jake Jacobson said he smelled a “cover-up” within a code of ethics violation complaint against city planning commissioner Lucia Pirzio-Biroli for city land work that she was privately hired to perform. In an earlier hearing, the city’s ethics hearing examiner recommended that the council dismiss the complaint without penalties, and the council took final action on Jan. 19.

A 4-3 vote led to dismissal of the Aug. 3, 2020, complaint, with Mayor Benson Wong, Deputy Mayor Wendy Weiker and councilmembers Craig Reynolds and David Rosenbaum voting yes, and Jacobson, Salim Nice and Lisa Anderl voting no.

Before that vote, a motion made by Jacobson and seconded by Anderl to admonish Pirzio-Biroli pursuant to a Mercer Island city code failed by a 4-3 vote with Wong, Weiker, Reynolds and Rosenbaum voting no, and Jacobson, Nice and Anderl voting yes.

During the meeting, Jacobson called out Wong for advising Pirzio-Biroli, and he mentioned a letter that was sent to the city attorney that never reached the people who filed the complaint.

Wong said he took objection to the idea of a cover-up.

“I certainly was not involved in any cover-up, and so I did have a conversation with the commissioner, this was before any complaint was formally filed and was simply to advise her that members of the community were raising issues and that she might consider talking to the city attorney,” he added.

Jacobson apologized to Wong for the impression that the mayor was involved in a cover-up, adding that the situation appears to some community members that there are irregularities, leading them to think a cover-up is in the air.

“I have the utmost regard for you personally and for the ethical person that you are,” Jacobson told Wong, adding that he admires how the mayor handles his difficult job.

Jacobson thinks that both the hearing proceedings and the opinion letter of the council’s ethics officer are fatally flawed in the complaint. He feels that the hearing examiner didn’t follow the statute by, in two instances, not exercising his authority to issue subpoenas for records, people and more, and by not reading the statute in its entirety.

“We certainly have work to do to clean up a very poorly grafted statute so the citizens of this city can be assured that ethical behavior is clearly lined out,” he said.

City attorney Bio Park said he respects Jacobson’s disagreement, but feels the hearing examiner and ethics officer followed the ordinance as currently drafted in terms of the process.

In describing the reasoning for the complaint to be filed, Park said the “ethics officer determined that, as submitted, the complaint was sufficient to alleged violation of code of ethics requirements against acceptance of gifts and engagement in business that the officer might reasonably expect would require disclosure of confidential city information.”

After examining the testimony and documents over the previous months, Nice added: “Not only did she seek out the work, did she contact the landowner and did she ask for the work and then get the work, but she knew when she did that she was creating a perception of a conflict and that she would recuse herself.”

Rosenbaum said he’s thought a lot about the issue and added that council has tons of work to do in the decision-making and ethics realms.

“I just don’t think it’s fair to set aside a process if you don’t like the outcome. I just don’t think it’s fair to the individual, I don’t think it’s fair to the next person that this is going to happen to,” he said.

Weiker feels that ethical conduct is one of the most important priorities for the council to keep discussing and following.

“I think all of us in public office, whether elected or appointed or on staff, really are doing the best we can,” she said. “We have these codes and processes in place for a reason, and getting them right and getting them codified once and for all in this community will serve us all much better.”

(The Reporter reached out to Pirzio-Biroli for comment, but had not received a response by post time.)

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