A Langley city councilman seeking reelection this November has filed an ethics complaint against a member of the Langley Ethics Training and Advisory Board.
Burt Beusch requested last week that the body investigate his claim that one of its members, Monica Guzman, acted inappropriately when she publicly accused him of being a Donald Trump supporter and declared her political affiliation. The allegations are based on a letter to the editor Guzman wrote which was published in the South Whidbey Record Oct. 18.
“I’m asking you look into this matter and seriously consider if Ms. Guzman’s damaging letter is representative of somebody who should continue to serve on the Ethics Committee,” Beusch wrote in his complaint.
Guzman described the charge against her as “pretty damaging.” She did not express regret, and confirmed she has no plans of permanently stepping down from her role on the ethics board.
“The easiest way to deal with it is to resign, and I’m not going to do that,” Guzman said. “I cannot do that. What is happening is wrong.”
She has, however, agreed to recuse herself temporarily while the advisory board deliberates the issue, and three other unrelated complaints.
According to board Chairman Bob Frause, the group on Monday agreed to review four of five complaints — it can decline some requests, for various reasons — including Beusch’s against Guzman. Frause said she was asked to step away from all of them because if she were found by the board to have acted unethically then the merit of her decisions on the other issues may be suspect.
Guzman’s letter to the editor charged Beusch with being a Trump supporter, quoting statements Beusch made in a recent news story and from an email he sent to Mayor Tim Callison this past November. One quote said he feels responsible as an American to support the president, but that it’s a challenge to support the current administration’s decisions and performance, and the other — the letter to the mayor — said popular comparisons at the time of Trump to Adolph Hitler went too far.
In an interview Thursday, Beusch characterized Guzman’s letter as nearly completely inaccurate, that his comments were taken out of context and that Guzman came to and made false conclusions about his positions while he’s running for election.
“This is a town that is overwhelmingly democratic,” Beusch said. “You publish something like that, it’s inflammatory. And for someone running for office, it’s damaging, especially when it’s not true.”
He reiterated his support for the office of the president, but not the man himself.
“We got a guy in office that I don’t support, I can’t support,” he said.
As for his email to the mayor, it was one small part of a larger letter in response to a charged city council meeting concerning the sanctuary city topic. The cited excerpt was his response to people at the meeting comparing Trump to Hitler.
“The only point I was really trying to make was, if we’re going to have open discussion where we’re going to come to reasonable decisions, these are the kind of things that take us off task,” he said.
Beusch added that he believes the letter went beyond being simply inaccurate, but was unethical. The ethics board is “probably our most esteemed committee,” he said, and that its members have a responsibility to remain neutral, to not take political positions; in her letter, Guzman identified herself as a Democrat. Beusch said he felt it was his “responsibility” to file the complaint.
“She’s on the ethics committee,” he said. “She has a higher standard.”
Guzman said she was angry at the charge, and that exercising her right to free speech is not inappropriate or unethical.
“I believe in democracy,” Guzman said. “I don’t believe in not telling the truth, not being open, not being transparent. You say what you say and stand by it.”
Frause said the process for deciding ethics complaints is simple. Those being investigated are questioned, and committee members convene to decide whether any one of the principles of conduct outlined in city code were violated. The principles are: conflict of interest, confidentiality, improper influence, misuse of public resources, representation of private interests, and workplace harassment and discrimination.
There are no guidelines within the principles that directly prohibit freedom of speech, but there are gray areas. For example, arguments could be made concerning clauses pertaining to conflicts of interests. Also, under representation of private interests, there is a specific reference to letters to the editor: “Officials, employees, consultants, volunteers and vendors who write a letter to the editor or other publicly distributed writing are required to disclose that he or she is acting only as a private citizen, unless authorized by the mayor to act on behalf of the city….”
Guzman did not identify herself as a member of the ethics board nor did she say she was acting as a private citizen.
Frause declined to go into details or address any parts of the code that may suggest wrong doing, but he did say that those principles are the basis of all the board’s decisions.
“Our whole focus is on those six principles of conduct,” he said. “You either did or didn’t do these things.”
The other three cases being reviewed are: charges of conflict of interest and failure to abide by city contracting rules concerning a wetland inspection by the city’s Parks and Open Space Committee; allegations of a conflict of interest related to a Second Street property being considered for a zoning change as the property is owned by JR Fulton, a member of the Planning Advisory Board; and an opinion requested by former City Councilwoman Rene Neff concerning a request for funding last year for the Island Shakespeare Festival, a group that she was a member of.
A fifth matter concerning council members talking about city business at a social club was requested, but Frause said the board had to decline because it could represent a legal matter.
Frause said all complaints must be decided within 30 days of the original request. He’s hoping the board can meet Nov. 13 to meet its deadline, but he said the cases require so much work that it may have no other choice but to request an extension.