Port Angeles City Council approves code of conduct

By Jeremy Schwartz
Peninsula Daily News

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PORT ANGELES — A city policy designed to direct City Council members on how to behave when interacting with each other and members of the public was unanimously approved by the council at Tuesday’s meeting.

The newly approved code of ethical conduct applies to the seven council members and appointed members of the city’s boards and commissions.

Discussions about the need for an expanded code of conduct arose earlier this year after Jack Slowriver, former Clallam County Democratic Party vice chair, and City Councilwoman Brooke Nelson each made a formal complaint concerning City Councilman Max Mania’s conduct.

During discussions Tuesday, Mania asked about the three-year statute of limitations on the code, specifically “if someone has left office but it’s not three years after, can someone still file [a complaint]?”

In response, Deputy Mayor Brad Collins said, “[The policy] applies to both current and past city officials.”

According to the new policy, portions of the code of conduct apply to former council, board or commission members up to one year after their terms have ended.

The code lays down general standards of conduct, including refraining from abusive behavior or verbal attacks against others, and includes provisions against conflicts of interest when voting on city matters.

It also creates a three-member board of ethics to handle complaints.

The new policy goes into effect Friday, Nov. 16, City Clerk Janessa Hurd said Wednesday, and will not be retroactively applied to complaints filed before that date about elected or appointed officials.

Additionally, Hurd said, the standards apply to elected or appointed city officials both when representing the city at a council meeting or other city-sanctioned event and when council members are simply out in public.

“When you’re out there in public, you’re still a City Council member,” Hurd said, “and I think the City Council members know that.”

Mayor Cherie Kidd has said the complaints filed against a council member showed the city’s need for a separate body to handle complaints filed against city elected or appointed officials.

The newly approved code of conduct does not apply to city employees, who have their own codes and processes for dealing with complaints specific to the city’s various departments, City Manager Dan McKeen said.

During discussions at Tuesday’s meeting, Deputy Mayor Collins raised concern about a code provision that deals with council members speaking as representatives of the city, especially when they are talking with the media.

The code provision says: “Public officials shall not, unless expressly authorized, make any statements, speeches, or appearances that could reasonably be considered to represent the views of the city or the City Council.”

Collins said he was concerned this could make speaking with the media difficult, in that it could prevent council members from talking about city matters unless they’ve officially been designated to speak for the city.

McKeen said each instance of a council member speaking with the media would be different and that council members should do what they feel comfortable doing.

“If those issues come up, if [council members] don’t feel comfortable answering, they can pass it off to [city] staff,” McKeen said.

City Attorney Bill Bloor said the provision means City Council members can say they are speaking for the whole council only if they have been designated to do so.

This does not stop council members from discussing city matters or expressing their opinion, as long as they make it clear they are speaking as individuals, Bloor added.

“You can go on to say that I’m not representing the city and tell them what your opinion is,” Bloor said.

“That’s perfectly all right.”

City Councilman Dan Di Guilio said he has used this method while speaking in public or to the media in the past, while Councilwoman Nelson offered her own suggestion.

“I’ve also found that ‘Thank you for your inquiry, but I have no comment’ works very well,” she said.

Said Mania: “We’re all subject to being translated through the press, and how that happens can change things greatly.”

Collins also asked for clarification on a portion of the policy concerning the board of ethics that would be created after a complaint is filed to decide if a violation of the code of ethics has occurred.

If a complaint is filed, the board of ethics would be formed from a preapproved pool of nine applicants, investigate the complaint and recommend a penalty to the City Council if it finds it is warranted.

Collins wanted to know where the money would come from if the board needed to retain outside legal counsel or an independent investigator.

McKeen said if it were necessary, it would be funded with the limited amount of money set aside for unbudgeted expenditures.

“I doubt if this would ever be used, and if ever, very rarely,” McKeen said.

“It would be the exception, not the rule.”

McKeen added that outside legal counsel would be needed only if a conflict of interest is identified for the city attorney.

Reporter Jeremy Schwartz can be reached at 360-452-2345, ext. 5074, or at jschwartz@peninsuladailynews.com.

Last modified: November 07. 2012 6:07PM
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