Those of us being governed get to see how the government works. We shouldn’t have to play guessing games to figure it out.
It’s a pretty basic tenet of a democratic system, but sometimes we find ourselves arguing it in our pursuit of information.
Consider the machinations behind Sean Robinson’s story Monday on the mounting costs of defending Pierce County Assessor-Treasurer Dale Washam. Washam faces a number of lawsuits and investigations including a 15-count complaint before the Pierce County Ethics Commission.
“It looks like the long-delayed public hearing on the Washam complaint will take place March 28,” Robinson wrote me as he was working on the story. “I say ‘looks like’ because the county’s ethics process is extremely difficult to decipher.
“You can’t even get anyone to say on the record that the complaint and hearing is about Washam, even though everyone knows it’s about Washam, and we’ve established that fact in published stories.”
The county’s ethics process is almost perfectly designed to prevent transparency, and it likely conflicts with state open-records law.
Here is the problem: County policy forbids public disclosure of complaints. Disclosure comes only after the matter is resolved and only then if the complaint is substantiated.
Not only must the county maintain confidentiality, but the person filing the complaint must keep quiet as well. If the person tells, the county may dismiss the complaint – unless the subject of the complaint wants an investigation, however unlikely that might be. The county can subject a complaint filer to legal penalties for revealing even the existence of a complaint.
Here is how we figured out the Washam complaint existed.
Last year, based on a tip, Robinson filed a records request seeking any complaints filed with the county ethics commission against Washam. At first, the county denied Robinson’s request. When pressed by the TNT, and upon the advice of the state open-government ombudsman, the county turned over Complaint 2011-03, but blacked out all the names in it.
However, the complaint quoted the state Supreme Court opinion upholding sufficiency of recall charges against Washam. It also quoted county investigations into his behavior.
Also through a records request, we obtained an email sent from the ethics commission hearing officer to Washam’s chief deputy, Albert Ugas. It referred to a telephone conversation between the two regarding the ethics investigation.
Armed with those cross-references, we wrote a story saying the complaint was against Washam.
When Robinson attended a public meeting of the commission last August, commissioners retired to a closed room for 40 minutes, returned to the public forum, voted to send Complaint 2011-03 to a hearing and adjourned. They never named the subject of the complaint.
It shouldn’t be that hard. And with the City of Tacoma’s Board of Ethics, it isn’t.
Last year we learned about – and wrote about – a handful of ethics complaints filed against city officials, including a number of them that were dropped.
The same citizen, for instance, filed complaints early in the year against Mayor Marilyn Strickland and City Councilman Marty Campbell. The complainant said Strickland broke the city ethics code when she accepted a Lakewood businessman’s frequent-flier miles for a trip to Asia on city business. He said Marty Campbell misled a citizen about a public meeting.
We asked the city clerk, who confirmed the complaints. The city ethics board agenda for March 24, 2011, listed the complaints and named Strickland and Campbell. In the end, Strickland was found to have violated city ethics code. The complaint against Campbell was tossed out.
It’s true that citizens can file complaints in a harassing manner. But transparency will reveal such harassment, and ethics commissioners can easily dismiss such claims in short order.
That’s what the city ethics board did. Citizens could watch the entire process and judge for themselves the merits of the complaints and the board’s findings.
The county ethics commission may have dismissed complaints citizens would take issue with. We’ll never know.
Robinson plans to attend the Pierce County Ethics Commission hearing on March 28. We’ve been told the hearing is public, although county code says the subject of the complaint gets to decide if it’s open or closed. We believe the hearing is about Washam, but the county is forbidden from telling us.
Karen Peterson: 253-597-8434