The Pierce County Council today will take up an amended ethics measure that would regulate lobbyists and require county department heads and others to disclose personal finances.
The council’s Rules Committee approved the ordinance on a 2-1 vote despite calls to postpone it because of questions about such details as who would and who wouldn’t be required to disclose their personal finances.
Councilmen Shawn Bunney, R-Lake Tapps, and Calvin Goings, D-Puyallup, voted for the ordinance. They said it can be revised in the future if needed.
“It’s easy to nitpick,” Goings said. He said he wanted to avoid the ordinance’s “death by a thousand cuts.”
Council Chairman Terry Lee, R-Gig Harbor opposed the measure. He said he favors an ethics overhaul, but he said the ordinance as drafted is “not ready for prime time.”
The ordinance would require paid lobbyists to register with the county and to report their expenses in lobbying county officials. It also would ban county employees from accepting most gifts and would give the county Ethics Commission power to issue advisory opinions.
The Rules Committee approved several amendments to the proposal Monday. Among other things, the amendments would:
• Allow employees to accept some gifts, including inexpensive items like a box of candy and gifts from family members or friends when it’s clear the item was not given to influence county business.
• Exempt citizen lobbyists, technical experts, government employees and the media from lobbyist registration requirements.
• Exempt from reporting requirements such activities as communications by labor groups related to collective bargaining and communications by county employees engaged in their jobs.
The amendment also exempts communications with the county executive or the executive’s staff about legislation prior to council action on that legislation. That could allow people deemed lobbyists in other contexts to avoid reporting efforts to influence the executive – as long as the effort was made before the County Council acts on an ordinance.
• Require that only an index of financial disclosures and lobbyists reports be posted on the county auditor’s Web site. As originally drafted, the ordinance would have required the actual documents to be posted online. Councilman Roger Bush, R-Graham, said the amendment would protect people from identity theft.
Still unresolved are questions about exactly who would be required to disclose their personal finances.
Under existing law, elected officials and candidates already must disclose some information about their income and investments. The proposed ordinance would add county department heads and the executive’s chief of staff to that list.
It also would require the leaders of some “quasi-county departments” to disclose their finances. Such agencies as the Tacoma-Pierce County Health Department and the nonprofit Pierce County Alliance – which administered the controversial Prometa drug treatment program for the county – are cited as examples.
But the ordinance would leave it to the Ethics Commission to finalize a list of affected agencies.
County Executive John Ladenburg has another concern: the council’s own staff would not be required to disclose finances under the proposed ordinance.
“Staff members have your collective ear,” Ladenburg wrote in an e-mail to council members Monday afternoon. “Could they not be swayed by lobbyists and gift givers to use their positions as your advisers to influence the budget?”
Ladenburg said he would propose an amendment to require the council’s staff to disclose personal finances and present it to the council today.
Some who testified Monday expressed concern over possible unintended consequences of the ordinance. Several, including representatives of Auditor Pat McCarthy and the Ethics Commission, asked the council to postpone action to give people more time to review it.
Richard McGrue, chairman of the Ethics Commission, said commissioners are “generally concerned about the apparent rush” to pass the ordinance. And Tiffany Speir, government affairs director for the Master Builders Association, said the measure “is not ready for final adoption in less than 36 hours.”
Goings said the Ethics Commission requested most of the changes to the ethics code included in the ordinance. And he said much of the language for other changes came from state, King County or Snohomish County law.
“If we were inventing something completely out of thin air, I could understand” the concerns, Goings said.
David Wickert: 253-274-7341
How to get involved
What: Consideration of new ethics policies
Who: Pierce County Council
When: 3 p.m. today
Where: Room 1045 of the County-City Building, 930 Tacoma Ave. S., Tacoma.