Politics & Government

Pierce County Council poised to remove secrecy provisions from ethics code

Suppose you’re a private citizen, and you file an ethics complaint against a Pierce County public official or employee.

Under current county rules, you can be fined for talking about your complaint in public, even if you do nothing but acknowledge it exists.

That provision, possibly unique in the state, is one of several elements of the county’s ethics code now slated for removal.

An amended ordinance sponsored by the County Council and recommended Monday for final approval would remove language imposing strict levels of secrecy regarding ethics complaints.

The amendments are intended to bring the county into compliance with state law regarding public disclosure and to ease restrictions on volunteer members of the county’s ethics commission.

Under current rules imposing secrecy, commissioners must walk a tightrope when discussing complaints in public.

“It’s a little odd to have your ethics commission be a closed entity,” said Councilman Derek Young, who brought the amended ordinance forward. The other six council members are also backing it.

It’s a little odd to have your ethics commission be a closed entity.

County Councilman Derek Young

Earlier this year, on March 8, council members voted unanimously for an ethics code revision that left the secrecy provisions untouched. That decision came before recent coverage in The News Tribune of an ethics complaint against county Prosecutor Mark Lindquist.

The stories noted that secrecy provisions in the ethics code prevented complainants and commissioners from discussing the complaint or even acknowledging that it named Lindquist. Commissioners ultimately agreed with a report that found Lindquist did not violate the code, but they declined to explain their reasoning, citing the same secrecy provisions.

The News Tribune obtained a copy of a hearing officer’s report regarding the complaint, relying on the state’s public disclosure law. The county’s ethics code, in its current form, prohibits disclosure of such records. In seeking the records, The News Tribune highlighted the apparent conflict between state law and the county ordinance; the county released the records.

Monday, Young and other members of the council’s Rules and Operations Committee referred to the coverage and the conflict, and said the secrecy provisions, as written, likely would not survive a legal test.

“Frankly, if challenged, I think it would have been easily overturned,” he said.

Council members suggested that the secrecy provisions dated to the late 1970s, when county government was embroiled in scandals that led to the ouster of then-Sheriff George Janovich.

Council members suggested that the secrecy provisions dated to the late 1970s, when county government was embroiled in scandals that led to the ouster of then-Sheriff George Janovich. At the time, anyone who filed a complaint against a county official faced legitimate fear of reprisal, members said.

Susan Long, the council’s legal adviser, said she researched similar ethics codes in other Washington counties and found nothing resembling Pierce County’s confidentiality rules.

“No one else, no other county, has the type of confidentiality requirements that our code contains right now,” she said.

Monday’s unanimous committee vote, recommending passage of the amended ordinance, sets up a final vote by the full council June 21.

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