Politics & Government

Puyallup plans to look at new ethics rules

A Puyallup resident, his supporters and some City Council members want the city to adopt an ethics code for elected and appointed officials. But some worry an election year is the wrong time to pursue it.

The proposal comes after resident Chris Chisholm accused Mayor John Knutsen and Councilman Steve Vermillion of making threats to withhold city funds from a local nonprofit. Both officials deny the claim, and City Manager Kevin Yamamoto says the remarks —whether true or not — wouldn’t constitute an ethics violation.

Unlike Tacoma and Lakewood, Puyallup’s municipal code doesn’t spell out a code of ethics that is enforced by an independent commission. That makes Puyallup the largest city in Pierce County without a formal process for dealing with ethics complaints.

The City Council will discuss its process and whether to change it at a study session later this spring.

New council members currently receive ethics guidelines when they’re sworn in, but the rules aren’t codified.

Yamamoto said the council is in charge of reviewing ethics complaints when they arise, even when they’re aimed at council members.

“There is nobody that has power over the council other than the voters,” he said. “The council has to police itself.”

Some of Chisholm’s supporters say having a way to formally investigate citizen concerns could keep people from airing so many grievances at council meetings, which has created political tension in the past.

In a series of emails to the Puyallup City Council and Yamamoto, Chisholm said he was the target of a threat after he came to a public meeting and spoke out against remarks made by Knutsen and Vermillion.

At a previous meeting, the two council members had openly questioned whether an assault on a library employee late last year was connected to Freezing Nights, a program that offers shelter to homeless individuals during cold months.

In an email to the city, Chisholm said there was no link between the assault and “this upstanding homeless service organization.” He then accused Knutsen and Vermillion with threatening to withhold funds from the organization in response to his call for an apology for their “public misstatements.”

“The only way bullies get away with bullying is when people remain silent. They should not be enabled,” Chisholm wrote. “The time is overdue to enact a code of ethics for elected and appointed officials in the city of Puyallup.”

Vermillion denounced the accusations, but he acknowledged that he has publicly mentioned withholding his own personal donations “from organizations who attack me.”

“It had nothing to do with city funds,” Vermillion said of his remarks.

Knutsen also denied the claims in an interview Wednesday, and said “what (Vermillion) does with his money is his business.”

The mayor added that ethical rules are already “sprinkled throughout” city and state laws, and he said Chisholm’s effort is politically motivated.

Yamamoto stressed that Vermillion’s remarks about withholding funds wouldn’t be considered unethical, no matter the context. Yamamoto said the entire council authorizes how money is spent, and a council member is allowed to discuss how funds should be spent.

Council members seemed open to reviewing the city’s ethics guidelines after several residents spoke at Tuesday’s meeting in favor of the proposal.

Councilman John Hopkins said he supports strengthening the ethics policy. But he said in an email this week that the council should distance itself from the process and wait until after election season to enact it.

“I do agree with (Chisholm), but the timing is off,” Hopkins said.

Councilman Tom Swanson said Tuesday the issue could be used as a “political hammer,” but the city could still start the process.

“What I don’t think anybody up here wants to do is put a bunch of words on paper that make people feel good, but don’t have any teeth or functionality,” Swanson said during the meeting.

Some Puyallup residents have reservations about the timing of the proposal.

Robin Farris said Wednesday she respects Chisholm’s intent. But she said the council has made strides to work better together, and pursuing ethics changes in an election year “would create more issues rather than solve the problem.”

Farris previously explored a recall campaign to unseat Vermillion, which has since ended.

Four City Council seats are on the ballot this year, including the ones held by Knutsen, Vermillion, Swanson and John Palmer.

Chisholm says an election year is an optimal time to move ahead.

“It’s the best time to keep elected officials accountable,” he said.