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Tacoma: Council to weigh subpoena powers for board, other ethics recommendations

Post by Lewis Kamb / The News Tribune on Feb. 28, 2011 at 5:16 pm |
February 28, 2011 5:17 pm

Members of a city board charged with reviewing ethics complaints against Tacoma’s top managers and elected officials are seeking subpoena power to help them in their cause.

“In order to conduct our duties, we feel that (subpoena power) is something that would be necessary,” Sean Armentrout, chairman of the city’s Board of Ethics, told Tacoma City Council members last week.

The recommendation to empower the five-member ethics panel with special legal authority to command subjects or witnesses of an investigation to testify or disclose records is among a host of proposed revisions to the city’s ethics code.

The City Council is expected to consider the board’s recommendations at its regular meeting Tuesday.

Among its suggestions, the board wants to revise the code’s section on “prohibited conduct” for city officials and employees. It wants to remove “an appearance of impropriety” from the list of barred conduct, because it’s “too vague and subjective,” Armentrout said.

The board also wants to broaden a definition for city officials’ conflicts of interest to include financial relationships beyond just contractual ones now cited in the code, he added.

Although it did not prompt that recommendation, the board’s review last year of Councilman David Boe’s private business dealings with a losing bidder for the Cheney Stadium renovation project illustrates the need for such revisions, Armentrout said Monday.

The board found Boe’s non-contractual business relationship did not violate the code’s narrow conflicts definition, but nonetheless raised ethical concerns.

On Monday, Boe praised the panel for its work. “The issue of greater clarity is well-received,” he said.

“My only concern (with the conflicts of interest recommendation) is that I will probably be recusing myself a lot,” added Boe, who noted that, as a local architect, he has business ties with prospective city contractors going back 15 years or more.

The ethics panel also recommended:

■ Changing the definition for banned gifts to city employees by removing an exemption for gifts under $50 and replacing it with all but nominal promotional items and hosted meals in official capacity

■ Adding a new section to the code that specifically identifies acts of moral turpitude, or dishonesty, as prohibited conduct, so long as it relates to an employee’s job duties

■ Revising a financial disclosure section for elected and appointed officials, so that failure to file annual disclosure forms with the city is recognized as prohibited conduct

The City Council formally established the ethics board in 2006. Prior to its formation, the city manager handled conduct investigations for most city employees, but effectively no system existed to review complaints against the city manager and other top-level officials.

The independent ethics board is now charged with reviewing complaints against the city manager, city council and utility board members, and the Tacoma Public Utility director. The board, which typically handles one to two complaint cases per year, can also review the ethics code and recommend revisions, Armentrout said.

“We wanted to look at the entire code to make it more user-friendly and easy to follow,” Armentrout said of the current exercise. “We want a city ethics code that the public can rely on and trust in.”

If the subpoena power recommendation is approved, Tacoma will join a host of other city ethics panels already using such powers during conduct investigations.

“I think subpoena power is critically important,” said Wayne Barnett, executive director of Seattle’s Ethics and Elections Commission, which has held the power for some 20 years. “Without it, all you can do is ask people to come in for an interview, and they can simply tell you no.”

Martha Lantz, a deputy city attorney assigned to the board, said Monday the city’s lack of providing the panel with subpoena power when it formed five years ago likely was an oversight.

“To my knowledge, it hasn’t become an issue,” Armentrout added. “But that doesn’t mean it won’t in the future.”

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