County council approves ethics ordinance required by charter amendment

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The Clark County Council has approved an ordinance that creates a mechanism for how the county will handle ethics complaints against elected and hired members of county government, bringing the county in line with a voter-approved change approved last year.

During their April 5 meeting, the council voted 4-0 to approve an ethics ordinance for the county. The ordinance states the county’s code of ethical conduct “adheres to requirements of state law, including, but not limited to, Chapter 42 RCW, RCW 42.23.070 and Clark County human resources policy 13.1.”

An elected official, county employee, appointed committee or advisory board member accused of violating those codes will be subject to review by an ethics review commission, according to the ordinance. The three-member commission will be appointed by the county manager with approval from the council. 

Commission members are not paid. They must be qualified in the area of ethical conduct in government and can’t hold elected office or be an officer for a political party.

The commission will determine what action will be taken for someone found in violation of the ethics code, the ordinance stated, “including but not limited to, public admonishment, public resolution of censure, or any action as allowed by law.” The county manager can take additional action if the subject of the commission’s decision is a county employee.

The ordinance puts into place requirements from a Clark County Home Rule Charter amendment approved by voters in November, which passed with more than 67% in favor.

At the meeting, several members of the public testified and expressed concerns over the strength of the ordinance. Much of the concern came from an apparent lack of clarity on what constitutes an ethics violation in the ordinance itself, because it only cites sections in state and county code which are applicable.

The ordinance also creates an ethics review and oversight office that will receive complaints before they are sent to the commission. 

Terri Niles, who served on the 15-member Clark County Charter Review Commission that put forth charter amendments last year, said voters told her they believed an ethics office would be more involved than simply taking in complaints.

“They’re just not seeing a robust office,” Niles said.

Another concern raised was the nature of how members of the commission are selected, as the appointment is brought forth by the hired county manager. 

Councilor Gary Medvigy noted the process is utilized by the county to appoint other members to its various committees and advisory boards, “something that never really caught my attention because it seems so familiar and similar to all the other appointees.”

“It does seem business as usual,” Medvigy said.

The county council has tabled any review of ethics complaints in 2020 due to a “completely unworkable” process, as Medvigy described it. 

“This is absolutely a pure effort to make this workable and better and stronger,” Medvigy said.

Regarding concerns over the ordinance’s strength, councilor Temple Lentz said the council decided to go with citations as opposed to a complete list in the ordinance so that any changes made in county and state code would be effective without changing the ordinance itself. County Manager Kathleen Otto noted the current human resources policy at the county does not extend to elected officials.

Councilor Julie Olson pointed to the 24-page human resources chapter cited within the ordinance, which ranged from electronic communications, to charitable and political activities, and tobacco and drug use, as well as nepotism.

“This is not a vacant ordinance,” Olson said. “It’s very specific and very detailed.”



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