Pierce County ethics code might get an overhaul
DAVID WICKERT; The News Tribune
The Pierce County Council this week will consider a sweeping ethics reform plan that would regulate lobbyists and require some public and private officials to disclose personal financial information.
The ordinance, which is scheduled to be considered Monday by a council committee, would require lobbyists to register and disclose their expenses for lobbying county officials. It also would prohibit county officials from accepting travel, meals and most other gifts of value. And it would require county department heads and the executives of some county-affiliated agencies to disclose their personal finances, as elected officials already do.
All seven County Council members are sponsoring the measure. But some say it lacks important details such as who is a lobbyist and who must disclose financial information in the name of the public’s right to know.
If those questions aren’t addressed, some council members want to table the measure until January.
“I do think the ethics code needs a good look and probably an overhaul,” said Council Chairman Terry Lee, R-Gig Harbor. “I just want to make sure it’s done in a responsible fashion.”
Other council members plan to introduce amendments addressing various concerns on Monday. Some say any effort to delay the ordinance is an attempt to kill it.
“I believe the concerns have and will be addressed,” said Councilman Calvin Goings, D-Puyallup. “Delaying needed ethics reform would be a huge step backward.”
Goings and Councilman Tim Farrell, D-Tacoma, introduced the measure last month after several public and private officials admitted they owned stock in a company that licenses the Prometa drug treatment program used in county drug court.
Prometa is licensed by California-based Hythiam Inc. The company has gained unfavorable publicity – including a “60 Minutes” segment scheduled to air tonight – for marketing what many say is an unproven treatment.
Hythiam has touted Prometa’s success in Pierce County in statements to investors. But a county report issued last month found little evidence that Prometa has been successful here, and the council voted in October to suspend funding for the program.
Amid the controversy, County Executive John Ladenburg and state Rep. Dennis Flannigan said they’d owned shares in Hythiam Inc. So did Terree Schmidt-Whelan, executive director of the Pierce County Alliance, the nonprofit group that administered Prometa for the county. Each lobbied state or county officials for public funding of Prometa.
Goings said the proposed ethics ordinance has been in the works for some time. But he said the Prometa controversy gave it new momentum.
PREVIOUS EFFORTS FAILED
The ordinance includes several ideas that were part of past failed efforts to revise the ethics code. For example, it would give the county Ethics Commission power to issue advisory opinions about ethical issues. And it would boost funding for the commission from $1,500 to $2,500 annually.
But the latest proposal goes further. The county doesn’t require lobbyists to register or report their spending. Nor does it require non-elected department heads to disclose personal financial data. The ordinance would require both.
Supporters say the proposal merely brings Pierce County into line with what the state and King County require.
“This is actually a very simple concept. Transparent and open government is a pretty cut-and-dry topic,” Goings said. “The devil is in the details.”
Key details include who must register as a lobbyist and who must disclose personal finances. At previous council meetings, some have expressed concern that ordinary citizens could be considered lobbyists, or vendors such as Office Depot could be required to disclose financial information.
Others – including some lobbyists and county department heads – wonder how far the code should go on financial disclosures.
The proposal would require lobbyists to disclose not only what they spend for lobbying, but also how much they earn. And it would require all of the financial disclosures for public and private officials to be posted on the county’s Web site.
Van Collins, district manager for Associated General Contractors of Washington, a construction industry association, sometimes lobbies county officials on various issues. He said he understands the desire for registration and reporting expenses. But he said some of the proposed financial reporting requirements are unnecessary.
“My salary – considering how small it is – I don’t think most people in the public would really find that interesting,” Collins said.
Brian Ziegler, the county’s public works director, said requiring department heads like himself to disclose financial information might give the public more confidence in appointed officials. But he questioned the need to post the information on the Web.
MOTIVATED BY NEXT ELECTION
Several people – including some council members – question the need to rush the ordinance through the council.
“We need it, but we need to do it right,” said Councilman Dick Muri, R-Steilacoom. Like Lee, he said the ordinance might need to be postponed to make sure important issues are addressed.
Past efforts to revise the ethics code have died after being postponed.
In 2005, the council’s Rules Committee considered two ethics proposals that were more modest than the current one. In each case the committee tabled them and never brought them up again.
Lee sees a key difference between 2005 and today: politics. Next year, every council member is running for re-election or for another county office.
“It didn’t seem like there was a high level of interest in doing it then,” Lee said. “But then again, you didn’t have a bunch of council members running for election.”
Councilman Roger Bush, R-Graham, sponsored one of the 2005 proposals. He has helped draft amendments to the new one that he said address legitimate concerns and should allow the proposal to move forward.
The amendments rely on existing state and King County laws to better define “lobbyist,” spell out who would be exempt from registering, and detail what and when they should report.
Among other things, the amendments would exempt from registration “citizen lobbyists” who receive reimbursement for such minor expenses as mileage or parking. Other amendments would require that only an index of financial and lobbyist reports be published on the county Web site, instead of the reports themselves. Bush cited concerns about identity theft if the reports were published online.
The amendments will be presented Monday to the Rules Committee. If the ordinance clears the committee, the full council will consider it Tuesday – the council’s last meeting of the year.
Along with Lee and Goings, Councilman Shawn Bunney, R-Lake Tapps, serves on the Rules Committee.
Lee and Bunney said Friday that they hadn’t seen the proposed amendments.
Lee said that if the amendments don’t address his concerns he’d prefer to postpone the measure to a specific date in January. He said it was “absolutely untrue” that a delay would be an effort to kill ethics reform.
“Any delay is only in the interest of a better product,” Lee said.
Added Bunney: “This is a bill I want to support. I’m hopeful we can move forward with it on Monday.”
David Wickert: 253-274-7341
How to get involved
The Pierce County Council this week will consider revising the county ethics code to:
• Prohibit county employees and elected officials from accepting most gifts of any value.
• Require lobbyists to register and disclose their sources of funding and their expenses in lobbying county officials.
• Require county department heads to file financial disclosure forms (current rules apply only to elected officials and candidates).
• Require the chief executive officers of some county-funded organizations – including some nonprofits – to file financial disclosures.
• Allow the Ethics Commission to issue advisory opinions on ethical issues.
The Rules Committee will hold a public hearing on the ethics ordinance at 10 a.m. Monday in Room 1045 of the County-City Building, 930 Tacoma Ave. S., Tacoma. The full council is to take up the ordinance at 3 p.m. Tuesday at the same location.