Conduct code stirs council debate

A code of conduct may not seem like a controversial topic.

Two Oak Harbor councilwomen, however, opened a political can of worms when they asked city staff to research possible codes of conduct or ethics for the council. The unusual controversy has opened up, or at least exposed, a division within the council.

It has also has raised questions about how elected officials should behave, particularly if they should be able to express all of their views in public.

At a recent city workshop, Mayor Patty Cohen had to call a recess because Councilman Paul Brewer, somewhat ironically, lost his temper while discussing a possible code of conduct, which he strongly opposes.

Councilwomen Sue Karahalios and Sheilah Crider both say they have pushed the idea of a code of conduct after realizing there isn’t one. They both agree that any kind of professional organization, whether it’s a company or a city, needs a code of conduct for its leaders.

Karahalios points out that the city employees have a code of conduct.

“It’s ridiculous to expect staff to follow a code of conduct when we don’t,” she asked.

Crider said an agreed code would set the “rules of the road” so that all council members would know what’s expected of them.

“The citizens should be able to expect us to act with honesty, integrity and trust,” she said.

On the other side, Brewer and Councilman Eric Gerber feel that the proposal for a code of contact is an attack on them and an effort to prevent them from publicly disagreeing with Mayor Cohen.

A code of conduct could contain ways in which the council as a whole could censure one of its members.

Karahalios, Crider and Mayor Cohen have all been critical of Brewer and Gerber for speaking to the News-Times about former city Youth Services Director Jennifer Fuentes while she was being investigated. Gerber and Brewer were both critical of the city administration.

There were accusations that Brewer and Gerber inappropriately discussed what was said during a closed-door, executive session.

City Attorney Phil Bleyhl, however, said he read the story and didn’t feel that the councilmen revealed any privileged information or violated any codes of conduct, though he stresses that he didn’t read it very closely.

For the record, neither councilman directly discussed executive sessions or revealed any information the News-Times didn’t have from other sources.

Karahalios, Crider and Cohen felt that council members shouldn’t publicly discuss the performance of staff members, particularly those who are being investigated or have threatened the city with a lawsuit.

In fact, Crider claims that it’s a violation of codes of conduct set in state law for members of a city council to make public comments about an employee’s performance. After all, the mayor in the “strong mayor” form of government is the ultimate supervisor of staff.

Bleyhl said he would rather council didn’t discuss staff performance — since it could prompt lawsuits — but that the courts have decided that matters involving discipline of public employees is open to the public. Nothing can bar a council member from freely discussing information available to the public, as long as they don’t revealed privileged information.

Cohen said she was hoping a code of conduct would simply be a reminder to council members that they should act “with a stronger sense of accountability and responsibility.” She said she’s concerned about bullying and outbursts among council members.

“I think perhaps this type of behavior should not be tolerated,” she said. “Maintaining a sense of dignity and respect is vital.”

The remaining members of the council don’t seem to be embroiled in the dispute, but they have strong opinions about the proposed code of conduct.

Councilman Jim Campbell, the newest member, said he’s very much in favor of a code.

“I guess the best way to put it,” he said, “is that I’m not afraid of a code of conduct.”

Campbell said he agreed that outbursts on the council are “embarrassing” and that members should act professionally.

At the workshop, Councilmen Larry Eaton and Danny Paggao both pointed out that state laws already set a code of conduct for elected officials, including city council members, and that there’s no reason to waste effort on creating one.

Karahalios and Crider, on the other hand, said laws governing the conduct of city council members are spread all over the RCWs and that it would be helpful to collect them into one document.

Nevertheless, it looks like the majority of council members oppose the adoption of a code of conduct or ethics. Time will likely tell whether the issue continues to be a political lightning rod.

You can reach Jessie Stensland at or 675-6611.

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