The Seattle City Council may vote Monday on a measure that would allow council members to vote on legislative matters in which they have a financial interest.
The Seattle City Council may vote Monday on a measure that would allow council members to take part in legislative matters in which they have a financial interest.
Rather than recuse themselves, as they are now required to do, the council members would need only to publicly disclose their personal conflict of interest.
The argument for the change in the city’s ethics rules is related to the council’s move this year to representing geographic districts for seven of its nine seats. Proponents say disqualifying a council member over a conflict of interest could have the effect of denying their constituents an equal voice in the matter at hand.
On June 1, the council’s governance committee recommended that the revision be approved, with council members Bruce Harrell, Debra Juarez and M. Lorena González supporting the measure.
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The full council was scheduled to take up the proposed change June 6 but that vote was postponed after Councilmember Tim Burgess raised concerns.
During a briefingbefore the full council, González noted the measure had been drawn up by the Seattle Ethics and Elections Commission to protect the interests of district voters. Juarez and Councilmember Mike O’Brien also spoke in favor of it.
But Burgess slammed the change at the briefing and in a memo to his colleagues, saying he would oppose it.
“The current disqualification requirement is a ‘bright line’ prohibition, in other words it is unequivocal and mandatory, and it’s regarded as a very high bar,” he wrote.
“‘Bright line’ rules in ethics law are considered best practice. Seattle has adhered to this high standard since 1980.”
Burgess said the disclosure requirement wouldn’t be enough to counter the perception of corruption.
“Quite the contrary, the proposed change (would allow) a council member with an actual conflict of interest to disclose that fact and then vote, a deeply troubling lowering of our ethical standards,” he wrote.
The ethics code already includes an exception to the disqualification requirement: When a council member shares a conflict of interest with a substantial segment of the city’s population, he or she doesn’t need to be disqualified.
That’s why council members who are homeowners are allowed to vote on legislation affecting property taxes, for example.
Burgess has proposed extending the recusal exception to cases in which council members share a conflict of interest with a substantial segment of their district’s population.
“It’s been suggested that this change in Seattle’s standard is necessary because of the voters’ decision to establish City Council districts, but I don’t believe the voters ever intended their actions to be interpreted as a desire to lower city government’s ethical standards,” Burgess wrote.
“Nor do I believe that the argument addresses the potential for harm to the appearance of fairness in our decision making process.”
In cases involving only the appearance of a conflict, rather than a direct conflict, the existing ethics code requires disclosure, rather than recusal.