This editorial will appear in Friday’s print edition.
It’s bad enough that Tacoma Mayor Marilyn Strickland let a local businessman pay her round-trip airfare to three Asian cities with his frequent-flyer miles – almost certainly a violation of city ethics rules and state law.
What’s worse is that Strickland, a savvy and intelligent woman, didn’t seem to understand why taking the gift was wrong.
Her defense: “I didn’t get any personal gain or benefit out of it.” She was on official city business, she told News Tribune reporter Lewis Kamb, and didn’t want city taxpayers to foot the bill because of the tight budget situation.
But it doesn’t take outright corruption to create a conflict of interest. Tacoma’s ethics code specifically bars city officials from accepting gifts valued at more than $50 “for a matter connected with or related to the City official’s services with the City of Tacoma.” The value of the airfare is estimated to be at least $3,000. And state law also forbids city officials from taking “any compensation, gift, reward or gratuity” from outside sources for matters related to their municipal services.
At the very least, Strickland should have made a simple phone call to the city attorney regarding the offer of free airfare by Ron Chow. He’s a Lakewood businessman who is interested in expanding Asian business opportunities in Tacoma – a fact that should have set her inner alarms off.
Is there even a slight chance that Chow, who has donated $750 to Strickland’s campaign in the past, might expect some sort of quid pro quo? Ethics codes such as Tacoma’s exist because there’s so often an expectation that when gifts are offered to city officials, that the favor will be returned in some way.
That might not be the case here, but it doesn’t look good and appearances are important. Other people wanting to do business with the city might wonder – rightly or not – whether Chow had some sort of a competitive advantage because of the favor he did for the mayor.
Strickland was well aware of the potential conflict-of-interest problem City Councilman David Boe ran into when it was discovered that he had had dealings with an architectural firm that was in the running for the Cheney Stadium renovation contract. She should have bent over backwards to make sure she wouldn’t find herself in a similar predicament.
To her credit, Strickland now says that “in hindsight,” she shouldn’t have accepted Chow’s gift without consulting the city attorney, and that she plans to write him a check for the value of the airfare. But she could be out more than that if she’s found to have violated the city’s ethics code and state law.
This was a disappointing gaffe by someone who should have known better.