A series of recent ethical dilemmas, some leading to lawsuits over secret meetings, demand a new approach.

Share story

Seattle must address ethical questions that are reducing trust in city government.

A reassessment of the city’s ethics policies should be initiated by the current council, the city’s ethics commission or Mayor Jenny Durkan. Ethics should also be a focus in this year’s council election, when seven of nine council seats are on the fall ballot.

A series of recent ethical dilemmas, some leading to lawsuits over secret meetings, demand a new approach. Officials say they are following policy guidelines and they haven’t been sanctioned by the ethics commission, but that doesn’t build public trust when sketchy things happen: It suggests clearer rules and more enforcement are needed.

Do you have something to say?

Share your opinion by sending a Letter to the Editor. Email letters@seattletimes.com and please include your full name, address and telephone number for verification only. Letters are limited to 200 words.

Do you have something to say?

Share your opinion by sending a Letter to the Editor. Email letters@seattletimes.com and please include your full name, address and telephone number for verification only. Letters are limited to 200 words.

Lawsuits began last summer after Durkan’s office had private meetings and conversations, some using private email, about repealing the city’s problematic head tax.

Then there’s Councilmember Kshama Sawant, who is exploring the boundaries of the city’s ethics policy. The ethics office is now looking into a startling report by the SCC Insight blogger Kevin Schofield, who revealed that Sawant allowed the private Socialist Alternative political group, which employs her husband, to run and staff her publicly funded council office.

Durkan’s office defended the nonpublic discussions, saying it was following ethics guidance warning officials to refrain from using public facilities to support or oppose political campaigns. A referendum was filed over the head tax, and the office was consulting with a union that had geared up to campaign for it.

City Attorney Pete Holmes also sought to withhold some records of these conversations, alleging that they were private political activity and not the work of public officials. That was rejected in October by a Superior Court judge, who ordered the records to be disclosed.

Durkan’s office said officials were relying on advice from Wayne Barnett, director of the city ethics and elections commission. But Barnett’s counsel, in a May 25 memo, advised them not to promote the head tax or otherwise assist the campaign.

Clearly there’s a difference between promoting a campaign and deciding whether to repeal legislation. Referendums don’t give officials an excuse to secretly discuss changing policy via the legislative process. Taken to the extreme, officials could argue that budgeting and transportation policy discussions should now be secret since Tim Eyman filed another $30 car-tab initiative.

Yet there is ambiguity about the definition of campaign activity, said Lincoln Beauregard, one of the attorneys suing Seattle for violating the state Open Public Meetings Act during its backpedaling on the head tax.

“I think it’s authentically a murky area,” he said. “They erred on the side of not disclosing records, and that’s the problem.”

Seattle officials make this more difficult and less trustworthy by giving special interests — in this case public-employee unions — too much influence over policy decisions.

Durkan said she’s “100 percent” willing to update the ethics policy and that having public trust in government is “never more important than today.”

For starters, the city must be sure its ethics policies cannot be invoked in ways that reduce transparency about the conduct of government and political campaigns.