Oak Harbor City Council is considering adopting something that they are currently lacking – a code of ethics and conduct.
During a workshop meeting last week, the city attorney responded to the council’s earlier concerns and questions about potential conflicts of interest with some options. Council members expressed a range of opinions about the idea of setting ethical standards for themselves and ultimately decide to consider a policy for responding to ethics complaints against council members.
The council members started discussing the issue of ethics and asked for guidance at a December meeting at which lodging tax grants were awarded to local organizations.
Councilmember Jim Woessner had abstained from the vote as he is on the board of the Craig McKenzie Team Foundation, which received an award. Councilmember Shane Hoffmire, however, chose not to abstain even though he is the director of maintenance for the North Whidbey Pool, Park and Recreation District, which received money for a pool slide.
City Attorney Hillary Evans advised that council members should abstain if a council member’s employer could potentially benefit financially from a vote. Mayor Pro Tem Tara Hizon asked for a clearer explanation of when council members should abstain from voting, as she believed a lot of what council votes on “could potentially financially benefit some of our employers.”
During the workshop last week, the city attorney presented sample codes of ethics and two ways to implement them. The city of Kirkland uses a code of ethics in its municipal code, whereas the city of Vancouver adopted a standalone policy that affects city council and the city manager’s office.
“You can choose to do this either way or choose to do this not at all,” Evans said.
Councilmember Shane Hoffmire said he thought the state already had restrictive enough rules for council members in place.
“I think this council is doing a pretty good job of regulating itself and I don’t know that it would be the best use of time,” he said.
Councilmember Beth Munns agreed but said “as the city grows, maybe it would be more important.”
Councilmember Jim Woessner said the city needed a process for what takes place when someone files an ethics complaint against a council member and that it should apply to boards and commissions as well.
Councilmember Bryan Stucky said that while people can be critical of council decisions, he has seen members of the city’s boards and commissions make “personal attacks” against council members on social media.
Hizon said she would like to see ethics guidelines as part of the council’s rules and procedures.
“I would probably prefer to have it just as a resolution or a policy attached to our rules and procedures as opposed to part of a code,” she said.
Councilmember Eric Marshall said he would also like to see a code of ethics as a resolution and proposed that board members should be removed if they violate a rule.
Evans said she would work on an addendum to council rules and procedures about ethics complaints, as well as work with staff in order to provide city council with training on when to abstain from votes.