The first sentence of Pierce County’s code of ethics reads like a sacred promise, worthy of a hundred hallelujahs and a thousand amens:
“The Pierce County Council recognizes the need for integrity in government and recognizes that the people of Pierce County consider governmental service to be a public trust.”
But there’s a shameful secret buried deep in this document – an outrageous enforcement provision that betrays the spirit of the code and its 27-word preamble.
The ethics commission oversees the investigation of public servants who are accused of self-enrichment, conflicts of interest and other breaches of integrity. But the code these five commission members are bound to enforce absurdly binds them to do nearly all their work in the dark.
The appointed commission, with the blessing of the elected County Council, recently completed a two-year scouring of the code and made several tweaks to it. Regrettably, it didn’t dawn on any of them to bring the ethics system into the light.
Never mind that this flies in the face of state open public meetings and public records laws, or that it stands in ugly contrast with the relatively open practices of the Tacoma and King County ethics boards, the Washington Legislative Ethics Board and others.
It’s bad enough that Pierce’s volunteer commissioners, plus the paid hearings officer who investigates ethics complaints, have long been forbidden from saying a word about cases. They can’t even acknowledge the existence of a complaint; they have to put on an enigmatic facade, as blank as the sealed envelopes in which complaints are submitted.
What’s worse is that the people filing complaints are compelled by threat to keep their lips zipped, too. Say anything publicly, and your case may be dismissed. Oh, and you could be slapped with a civil infraction – the equivalent of jaywalking, but a preposterous bit of bullying nonetheless.
In case you think the code is making a bad joke, it mentions these penalties no less than three times.
Not only do participants have to play dumb on the front end of a complaint, they also must stay mum at the end, after a case is closed with no finding of probable cause. Only when the hearings officer finds grounds to believe an ethics violation took place does the commission come out of the shadows – sort of. The panel schedules a hearing, and the alleged violator gets to choose if it’s open.
If the case against him is proven, a public record is prepared – but not actually made public for at least 30 days, after a chance to appeal is offered.
The whole thing is perniciously confusing, but can be summed up with a quote from the movie “L.A. Confidential.” It is, as the gossip columnist played by Danny DeVito would say, “off the record, on the QT and very hush-hush.”
Now for some good news: A Charter Review Commission member last week introduced an amendment that would enshrine ethics commission transparency in the county’s foundational charter. That’s a great idea, but at a bare minimum, the County Council should revise the ethics code.
Councilman Derek Young says a fix is in the works. The council seems to grasp the need for change after the system was called out in a Sean Robinson story and Karen Peterson column in The News Tribune.
“When I heard about this, frankly I was shocked,” Young said in an interview Thursday. “I think we were all caught off guard.”
They shouldn’t have been.
Granted, the council had a lot to sort through this year when the ethics commission brought forward a list of proposed code changes. Most of the revisions make sense, and the council wisely approved them. For instance, increasing the penalty for ethics violators from $500 to $5,000 is more likely to deter people from disgracing their office.
But at various times, including at a rules committee meeting in January, council members were clearly aware that ethics complaints are reviewed in an opaque manner. And none of the changes they adopted last month would let in some sunshine.
Constituents are entitled to know when their leaders are being investigated for questionable behavior. It’s inexcusable that the ethics commission had to feign ignorance about a probe of County Prosecutor Mark Lindquist. The inquiry, revealed last year in News Tribune reports, didn’t result in a finding of probable cause but still merited disclosure. Such is the price of holding taxpayer-funded office.
Pierce County could learn from an ethics commission up north. After Seattle’s transportation chief helped negotiate a city buyout of the nonprofit he used to run, the city’s ethics panel acknowledged it’s investigating him – and he’s not even an elected official.
Whether politicians or department heads, powerful public figures owe it to the people to perform their duties with the utmost professionalism. And the Pierce County Council must ensure the system runs with transparency.
The first 27 words of the ethics code demand it.