Seattle should keep a bright-line rule separating council business from the personal interests of council members.
SEATTLE house prices are rising faster than in every American city except Portland. The City Council is mulling significant changes to zoning codes that could be a gold mine for selected property tracts. All nine Seattle City Council members are property owners.
Combined, those ingredients are ripe for conflicts of interest for council members. Yet the council is preparing, in a politically tone-deaf move, to weaken the city ethics code regarding council members’ personal financial interests. It is a bad change, and should be rejected.
Currently, the council has a strong, decades-old ethics code requiring members to recuse themselves from votes if they or immediate family members have a direct or indirect financial conflict of interest in business before the council. It’s worked just fine.
Last week, the council was prepared to vote to water down that rule, requiring disclosure of the conflict, but not recusal from the final vote. Councilmember Tim Burgess rightly put up a stop sign. Other council members seemed to suddenly envision headlines with the words “Seattle City Council” and “self-dealing,” and deferred action for two weeks.
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Interestingly, the amendments to the ethics code are supported by the Seattle Ethics and Election Commission, and were triggered by Seattle’s switch to district elections.
The thinking goes that if district-elected council members recuse themselves over a conflict, each district’s 70,000-some citizens lose a say. Under the old citywide district system, all nine council members represented the whole city. Not so now; just two are citywide representatives.
It’s a fair point.
But it’s also important to remember the conflict-of-interest rule rarely is invoked — or required. Recently, four City Council members who owned rental properties recused themselves when new landlord regulations were proposed.
Voters expect that council members won’t be able approve legislation that directly benefits themselves. If the ethics code changes were in effect, the four landlord-council members theoretically could’ve disclosed their conflicts, yet still tinkered with rules that made their personal investmentsmore profitable.
Seattle is a good governance city, with rare exceptions. When voters approved a switch to district elections, they certainly didn’t expect a weakening of the ethics code. The council should keep a bright-line rule and require council members to step back when they’d personally benefit from their own votes.