Protecting The Integrity Of Government
Special To The Times
AS citizens of Seattle, you can rest assured that your city government operates with the highest ethical standards. But it hasn't always been so. Prior to the early 1970s, city government was plagued by serious scandals involving corrupt practices that reached the highest levels of city government. One of the reforms that emerged from this history was the formation of what is today the Ethics and Elections Commission.
As commissioners, we work for you. We are volunteers. We are not paid. We work on our own time. There is no personal gain involved in our work. We are strictly nonpartisan and are prohibited from participating in any way in any city election. Although we are appointed by the mayor and the City Council, we do not represent their interests. We represent the interests of the citizens of Seattle.
As the mayor and City Council finalize the budget for 1999-2000, and as a special study group reviews our work, we felt we should write this report to you, our constituents.
Understanding why the Ethics and Elections Commission exists is important for one single reason: Your trust and confidence in city government rests on your belief that the decisions made by your elected officials and other city employees are fair, honest and consistent with the law. It is the commission's job to make sure your trust and confidence is justified.
Recently, the mayor and City Council announced the creation of a citizen study group to review the commission's authority and work. While we welcome the opportunity for review, their announcement has had a chilling effect on the commission's efforts to fulfill its mission since the announcement lacked any identification of specific problems or concerns. People have called the commission asking whether their cases involving potential government misconduct would continue to be investigated.
Three steps toward integrity
In order for our commission to be effective, we must have autonomy, enforcement capability and adequate funding.
The first step toward integrity in government is an independent commission empowered to aggressively and fairly enforce the ethics and election laws. Seattle's commission is a nationally recognized model.
The second step is a commission with adequate enforcement power. Seattle's ethics and elections laws are among the strongest in the country. They require full disclosure of political campaign finances and potential conflicts of interest. They limit the size of political contributions. They establish clear guidelines so city employees can sort out potential problems before they occur. They protect you from unfair practices in city contracting. They help to ensure that the basic services you receive from city employees - like police and fire protection, building permits and street repairs - are based on simple standards of fairness, honesty and the avoidance of conflicts of interest.
Most of the commission's work is done through education, training and the issuing of advisory opinions to city officials and employees who ask about the ethics or election laws. Rarely does the commission use its subpoena power or take enforcement action against any individual. Over the past several years, the commission has used its enforcement powers to uncover money laundering in a local political campaign, stop city employees from operating private businesses from city facilities on city time, and compelled candidates for public office to abide by campaign finance disclosure laws.
When we do find problems, they are almost always quickly resolved voluntarily or through negotiated settlements.
The third step toward integrity in government is adequate funding for the commission so we can do our job effectively and efficiently. It is here that Seattle's citizens have not been well served.
The commission's budget has remained relatively the same for the past five years. Our 1998 budget is $253,060. After all of the salary and other fixed costs are paid, we have $16,139 left, approximately $1,300 per month, to pay for postage, paper, staff training, printing brochures, training materials, etc.
The commission has requested a budget of $642,671. These funds are needed to add a full-time elections compliance auditor, retain outside legal counsel in order to maintain our independence, upgrade computer systems for even better and easier campaign finance reporting, and hire a training and information officer to close the gap in training 13,000 city employees, appointed and elected officials.
Questions about how much money to allocate to the commission creates an interesting dilemma for city officials. The commission has investigative power over the elected officials who adopt our budget. Perhaps a fixed formula for funding the commission should be adopted, much like the 1 percent for arts formula in city law. Such a step would remove any question that the budget is being used to hamper the commission.
New issues and concerns
Several new issues and concerns have been raised by the commission that highlight the need for a strong, independent and effective commission that is fully funded.
-- The commission has proposed, and the city auditor endorses, extending the ethics law to city contractors and vendors. Contractors and vendors doing business with the city should be held to the highest standards that prevent conflicts of interest or inappropriate financial relationships.
-- The commission has suggested that public development authorities (PDAs) be subject to the ethics law. PDAs are established by the city and often perform what citizens understand to be city-related services, like managing the Pike Place Market or the Pacific Medical Center. These PDAs are not covered by the same ethical standards as city officials and employees. They should be.
-- The study group set up by the mayor and City Council has been charged with reviewing whether the current city ethics standard of prohibiting even the "appearance of a conflict of interest" is too strict. We are troubled that the top officials of our city would consider lowering the measure of what is deemed ethical conduct. The elimination of the appearance standard will gut the ethics law and create an environment adverse to public confidence in government. The commission will vigorously oppose any weakening of the ethics law. The mayor recently said that there is "confusion" and "fear" fostered by the appearance standard. Even if true, this can easily be eliminated by increased training, as proposed by the commission.
-- It has also been suggested that the commission's election law-enforcement powers and responsibilities be transferred to another jurisdiction to eliminate duplication of work by multiple jurisdictions. The commission has long favored merging election compliance responsibilities if Seattle's standards are maintained. However, neither King County nor the state of Washington enforce their election laws as consistently or as aggressively as Seattle. Transferring city election law enforcement to another agency without first changing the compliance standards of these other organizations would be tantamount to saying that Seattle will look the other way on election violations. The commission will not support such a dilution of our work.
You can be assured that the commission will continue to represent citizen interests as we work through these crucial and complicated issues.
The commission is strong today because we have autonomy and effective enforcement powers. However, our budget is not adequate. We have submitted a strategic plan and budget proposal that is worthy of adoption. We hope the mayor and City Council will continue Seattle's strong reputation for ethics and election law leadership by passing the commission's recommended budget, thereby maintaining a strong, independent, and effective commission.
The authors are current members of the Ethics and Elections Commission.
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