Bothell Mayor Joshua Freed did not violate ethics rules in making what turned out to be a successful bid to buy the Wayne Golf Course back nine for his private development company, according to an independent investigation.
The finding by an independent investigator that Bothell Mayor Joshua Freed did not violate city or state ethics rules when he successfully bid to purchase the Wayne Golf Course back nine for his private development company is unlikely to silence critics.
A packed City Council chamber Tuesday night booed and hissed when Freed said the investigation concluded that he had followed all laws and rules governing council actions and asked that the community avoid personal attacks and a rush to judgment.
“It was private property on the market,” Freed told the audience. “There was no legal violation, no ethical violation.”
The investigation found that Freed did not make an offer to purchase the property, 38 acres along the Sammamish River, until the city’s own right of first offer on the property had lapsed in early 2014.
The golf-course owners then approached 16 developers, including Freed’s company, Element Residential, which was ultimately the successful bidder, the report said.
The investigation also cleared City Councilmember Mark Lamb, the mayor’s real- estate attorney and a personal friend, of any ethics violations.
“It is likely, of course, that Mayor Freed and Councilmember Lamb have received or are hoping for compensation for activities concerning the property,” the investigator, Seattle land-use attorney Peter Eglick, said. “However, (state law) does not prohibit elected officials from pursuing for their direct or indirect benefit a purchase that the City Council has declined to pursue.”
The fate of the back nine is also unclear. Freed read a statement from the dais saying he was willing to meet with any purchasers who want to acquire the back nine for conservation.
“If no group surfaces,” he said, “I am committed to creating a neighborhood that would honor the environment.”
A group of residents organized as OneBothell has lobbied the city to buy both the front and back nine and preserve the land for recreation and habitat restoration for threatened chinook salmon.
On Tuesday, the conservation group Forterra presented a proposal to the council to buy the front nine and hold it for three years so the city could seek grants and private funds to purchase it.
The council directed the city manager to work with Forterra, the golf-course owners and Freed to see if an agreement can be reached on preserving the entire course.
The results of the ethics investigation did not satisfy the standing-room-only crowd or some of Freed’s council colleagues.
Councilmember Tris Samberg noted that the investigator described some of the city’s ethics rules, such as the duty to never use one’s city position for personal gain, as “aspirational.”
The investigator also said there was no evidence that Freed or Lamb had hurt public confidence in the city’s integrity.
“So there haven’t been any laws broken, it might be legal, but it sure doesn’t feel right,” Samberg said to loud applause. She called on the council to revise its ethics rules so they are enforceable.
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“The quickest way to rectify this is to get this property for the public,” she said.
The City Council in November 2013 met in executive session to consider whether it wanted to make an offer on the back nine. Under the terms of a 1996 conservation easement on the front nine, the golf-course owners were required to give the city notice if they planned to sell any portion of the property.
No action was taken at that meeting and city leaders subsequently said the city had no money to acquire the land. OneBothell and other residents have questioned why the public wasn’t notified that the land was for sale and given the opportunity to try to secure funding.
Some suggest that the City Council broke state public-meeting laws when it failed to publicly disclose, after the executive session, that it was not going to purchase the property.
Michele Earl-Hubbard, vice president of the Washington Coalition for Open Government and an attorney who handles public records and public-meeting litigation, said in an interview Monday that the decision not to act on the purchase option was a decision under the Open Public Meetings Act.
“Both actions and final actions are supposed to be taken in public,” she said.
Bothell City Attorney Joe Beck disagreed, saying, “There was no decision to act or not act. There were individual council members making individual decisions. The city didn’t have the money to purchase the back nine. It would be irresponsible to do so. That was the vibe.”
At Tuesday’s council meeting, Lamb said a lesson learned from the ethics inquiry is that the city “should have a better process around disclosing actions or inactions” before and after executive sessions.
Metropolitan King County Councilmember Rod Dembowski, who has criticized Freed’s role in the golf-course-property acquisition, said if a violation of the open-meetings law occurred, one remedy could be for a judge to void Freed’s contract to purchase the back nine.
“That might be something the public could look into,” Dembowski said.
OneBothell leader James McNeal said Tuesday that he was encouraged by Freed’s stated willingness to talk with any group interested in preserving the back nine.
“I hope tonight the mayor got the message about what the community wants,” McNeal said.