Kinnon Williams, candidate for EvergreenHealth hospital district commissioner, held a dual role at a utility district, serving simultaneously as an elected commissioner and a paid attorney.
A public-employee union’s complaints about Williams’ arrangement with the Kenmore-based Northshore Utility District led the Legislature in 2007 to amend the state ethics code to prohibit elected or appointed officials from being paid legal fees by their agency.
Until both legislative houses voted unanimously for that change, contracts of up to $1,500 a month were exempt from the ethics law.
Williams is running against longtime EvergreenHealth Commissioner Rebecca Hirt in a race that has drawn attention because EvergreenHealth Board Chair Al DeYoung and his relatives have spent $55,000 in support of Williams.
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Williams said his Northshore legal-services contract for up to $1,500 a month saved ratepayers money because he charged the district far less than his usual hourly fee and because he was an expert in laws governing special-purpose districts.
“They got a great deal for it,” Williams said. “My hourly rate is substantially higher than that. I have years of experience representing boards and commissions — that’s what I do for a living.”
Williams didn’t vote on his contract, which he said lasted about two years. He terminated the contract after the governor signed the change in the ethics code.
First elected to the utility commission in 1993, Williams didn’t run for re-election when his second term ended in 2007. He was later rehired as Northshore’s attorney. Williams said the district originally paid him about $100 an hour and now pays him $250, still below his regular fee.
His legal work while a utility commissioner was mostly on labor issues, which brought him into contact with Pat Thompson, deputy director of the Washington State Council of County and City Employees.
“One of the things I kept hearing from our membership was, ‘Why is Kinnon Williams, who is a board member, the utility district’s attorney?’ ” Thompson said.
Thompson said he told Williams the arrangement might be legal, “but it’s putting a cloud on our getting a contract settlement because people are questioning this as a conflict of interest so it taints anything right off the bat. Nothing personal. Kinnon took great exception to that and told us to pack sand.”
After the Legislature banned legal contracts with commissioners, the Northshore board passed a resolution that allowed the district to reimburse a commissioner who provided free legal service for “out-of-pocket expenses” including 150 percent of the hourly rate for clerical and paralegal work.
The state Auditor’s Office, in a 2007 “management letter” to the district, said that policy violated state law. The auditor said Williams was paid $13,366 in legal fees and costs that year, $550 of it after the state banned legal contracts with commissioners.
Williams said that many employees later said things were better when they negotiated with him. Workers decertified the union after he stepped down as a commissioner.
“Basically what it amounts to is Pat Thompson is a little crybaby, excuse me, because he didn’t get his way,” Williams said.
Thompson said he remains convinced Williams’ legal contract while a commissioner was improper.
“This is problematic,” Thompson said. “It’s unethical. It creates a conflict when you’re paying a board member for their advice.”
Keith Ervin: 206-464-2105 or firstname.lastname@example.org