Hoping to avoid “frivolous” claims and witch hunts, the Langley City Council approved the long-wrought ethics code Monday night but declined to establish a standing board to hear complaints.
The ethics code approval was not without some dissent. Margot Jerome, elected to the council in November, questioned the interpretation of a letter submitted by the people who crafted the code, and asked to table the issue. She wanted the Municipal Resource and Services Center of Washington, a government reference guide, to take a look at the code and the letter.
Jerome voted against the code, but the policy document was adopted in a 4-1 decision. She was concerned an ad-hoc ethics committee would lack full separation from Langley City Hall, and thus may not appear to be outside the city’s influence.
“We just need to make sure we do this thing right,” Jerome said.
Originally proposed by former councilman Hal Seligson, who did not seek re-election in favor of realizing his retirement last fall, the now disbanded ethics commission was filled with Mayor Fred McCarthy’s appointees. In its last act as an assembled group, the ethics commission submitted a letter to the city explaining that it did not think a standing ethics board would best serve the small city. McCarthy agreed with that decision when it was first submitted in late 2014, and reasserted his support at the recent council meeting.
One of his concerns, echoed by some city council members, was that a standing ethics board — one that met regularly like the Planning Advisory Board or the Design Review Board — would be wasted time, or worse, encourage a witch hunt of sorts for ethics violations.
McCarthy maintained that most of the time, ethics issues could be resolved by the mayor. If an ethics violation was brought against the mayor, McCarthy said the city could draw upon the original ethics commission members, Langley residents and South Whidbey community members to review the claim.
In recent years, Langley has had a spotted history with its top elected official and ethics related incidents. Former mayor Larry Kwarsick was forced out of office after falsifying a city document. He served two weeks in jail for the crime. Prior to that, former mayor Paul Samuelson was embroiled in controversy over vacation pay.
Planning chief Jeff Arango, the whistleblower who exposed Kwarsick, supported the decision to forgo a standing ethics board, saying the prior reporting system was effective at protecting him.
“At least in my perspective, it worked,” he said, later adding that he was worried a standing board could encourage “frivolous” claims being made.