Metropolitan King County Council members and other elected county officials will soon be able to collect money from anyone, any time — even when contributors have business pending before the county.
Officials will be able to set up an office fund to pay for travel, dining, office supplies, hosting foreign visitors, parking, professional memberships and other things related to their jobs, but not covered by county tax dollars.
“I don’t plan on setting up an office fund, but I think that because of the investment that people have in the community in serving in office, they should have that as an option,” said Councilmember Joe McDermott, the sponsor of the legislation, passed Monday.
Council members already are allowed to use leftover campaign contributions to cover such expenses, but not every council member has extra campaign money, McDermott said. Now they would be able to accept donations of as much as $1,000 per donor over four years.
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The legislation originally was on the council’s consent agenda where noncontroversial items are voted on all at once, without discussion. But council members took it off that agenda Monday and debated and approved the measure in a nearly empty room.
Office funds are common in local governments. City of Seattle elected officials are allowed to have them, but must adhere to stricter rules than the county has established. Most notably, Seattle officials can’t accept office-fund donations from anyone doing business with the city — an ethics rule that forced then-Mayor Greg Nickels to return $500 to Vulcan in 2004 after a housing activist complained.
The county legislation has no such restriction.
Supporters of allowing the new fund said the rules are no different from campaign contributions, which often come from people doing business with the county.
Councilmember Julia Patterson, who voted against the legislation, said her worry is that someone who stands to gain from county legislation could donate as much as $1,000 to a council member’s office fund right before a vote.
“I’m concerned that it provides another opportunity for outside money to influence the political process,” she said.
A spokesman for County Executive Dow Constantine, who originally proposed the legislation, said that concern is addressed by requiring quarterly public reports to the county Board of Ethics. Those reports will be available on the county’s website.
Councilmember Pete von Reichbauer, chairman of the Government Accountability and Oversight Committee, came under fire in 2010 for spending more than $13,000 of his surplus campaign funds on restaurant meals over an 18-month period. He said dining out helped him stay in touch with constituents.
Now such expenses could be covered by an office fund.
“I personally would never accept money while something is being considered,” he said.
In the Monday council meeting, Councilmember Kathy Lambert said she thought the legislation should be sent back to committee for more work.
“I don’t feel comfortable with the impression or anything that people might think we can accept contributions when people have business before us,” she said.
Von Reichbauer told her she should vote against it, if she wasn’t comfortable.
She did, along with Councilmember Reagan Dunn. Councilmember Jane Hague was absent.
A public summary of the meeting’s highlights from council staff included the council’s declaration of June as Gay Pride Month and its sale of a surplus road-maintenance facility, but nothing about the office fund.
McDermott said the public had plenty of opportunity to weigh in on the funds. There was nothing sneaky about the legislation, he said.
“They took it up in committee and made amendments, then it was on our full council agenda in the regular time frame,” he said. “Because people realized we wanted to do more work on it, we pulled it off the consent agenda, and you saw Monday we had a vigorous debate.”
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