Press "Enter" to skip to content

Olympia needs a code of ethics to restore public trust in local government

The City of Olympia has no code of ethics. But a movement is afoot to urge Olympia’s City Council to establish an Ethics Code and Commission. This will help ensure that our elected officials and government agencies are transparent and act without bias–free of commercial or political interests that can influence them to make decisions that improperly benefit one group over another.

Assuring that government officials act in the public interest

In the absence of its own code of ethics, Olympia’s elected officials are subject to the minimal standards in RCW 42.23. This covers only municipal officers and primarily forbids officials from gaining financial benefits as a result of their position. It does not cover the actions of municipal agencies, departments or staff.

Olympia City Council members also are subject to “expectations” referenced in the City Council Guidebook. It is just guidance “intended to create a high level of trust, creativity, and productivity” seeking common ground, building trust by being transparent and ethical, and respecting all citizens.

The Thurston County Chamber Foundation since 1982 has trained business and community leaders including several City Council members as well as employees from all local jurisdictions.

Certain other provisions of Washington law also attempt to ensure that government officials and agencies act with integrity and make decisions that don’t undermine trust in government itself. Article 2, Section 30 of the Washington State Constitution states that “corrupt solicitation of … public officers of the state or any municipal division thereof …to influence their official action…shall be punished by fine and imprisonment.”

“The Appearance of Fairness Doctrine” codified in Washington statutes, is another attempt. It applies to quasi-judicial proceedings and requires hearings to be conducted in such a way as to avoid even the appearance of bias.

Thirteen Washington cities have adopted their own local codes to clarify circumstances not addressed by these state laws.

Why does Olympia need its own ethics code?

A May 2023 survey by the City of Olympia found that 70% of respondents believe that Olympia is on the wrong track–a 19-point increase since 2021. Much of the dissatisfaction regards housing and homelessness, but respondents also believe the City is not transparent or open, and does not incorporate feedback it receives from the public.

According to people urging adoption of an ethics code, it would “empower the city and its citizens to define ethical standards and create a framework for ensuring ethical conduct within its government and among its public officials and employees.” It would promote transparency and accountability, potentially increasing public trust. An ethics commission would encourage residents to participate in governance by providing a forum where their values and expectations for city officials and agencies could be heard.

The potential for organizational conflicts of interest

Over the years, community members have also raised concerns about potential conflicts of interest that can arise when the same people have roles in local government entities and business organizations.

For example, in 2016 the Thurston Chamber of Commerce created a Public Policy Division to provide “a more unified and precise approach to public policy and issue management.” The Division is a 3-member team consisting of former Olympia mayor Doug Mah, legal counsel Heather Burgess, and a public relations professional. They work to “impact regulatory, land use and permitting issues” and partner with local governments to obtain resources for regional projects.

While the Chamber lobbies our local government on behalf of business interests, it was also hired to partner with Thurston County and the cities of Olympia, Lacey and Tumwater to lobby the State Legislature for regional projects through the Shared Legislative Agenda. Doug Mah is the registered lobbyist for the Chamber of Commerce, but he did not register with the Public Disclosure Commission as a lobbyist for the Shared Legislative Agenda. Could this present a conflict? A lobbyist working in the Chamber’s interest but familiar to legislators as a representative of local government might have a better chance of success in adding language to legislation to benefit developer members of the Chamber—at the expense of the city’s interest.

Potential for violations of the Fairness Doctrine

Olympia’s Hearing Examiner rules on critical land use developments like the problem-plagued Green Cove Park Project (represented by Heather Burgess who was previously the attorney for the Port of Olympia). The current Examiner, Mark Scheibmeir, is a member of the Lewis County Chamber of Commerce and a real estate attorney with clients in the Thurston Chamber. Scheibmeir’s membership in the Chamber and role as a real estate attorney risks violating the Appearance of Fairness statute as he exercises ultimate authority over land-use proposals.

A case in the Superior Court of King County, (Save a Valuable Environment vs. City of Bothell, 1978) illustrates the problem. The Court determined that membership in the Chamber of Commerce by two members of the Planning Commission who supported a disputed zoning decision violated the Appearance of Fairness statute. As a result, the rezone was voided.

Blurring the line between the interests of business and the needs of the public

Development advocacy organizations like the Chamber offer countless opportunities for elected officials, real estate attorneys, developers, nonprofit leaders, professionals and others to work together on issues involving government policy, funding and decisions that shape our community. Personal relationships grow from these shared activities and far exceed anything unaffiliated members of the public can call on to have their voices heard.

The Thurston Chamber of Commerce membership includes a full range of business, financial and professional entities. But it also includes many county government departments. Does membership by government officials and departments in a development advocacy organization like the Chamber raise a question of bias when formulating policies and provisions for such things as the Shoreline Master Plan or the Habitat Conservation Plan? Do Chamber members’ issues (or language they recommend) get privileged consideration? It’s evident that they enjoy privileged access not available to members of the interested public.

If government officials and departments belonged to the Sierra Club or other environmental advocacy organizations, would those officials’ decisions on matters of importance to those groups not raise questions of bias?

The Thurston County Chamber Foundation since 1982 has trained present and future business and community leaders including several City Council members as well as employees from all local jurisdictions (including the prosecuting attorney’s office and Olympia police). The Foundation, a non-profit, also acts as the fiscal agent for Thurston Thrives which receives funding from Thurston County. Thurston Thrives has “action teams’’ made up of government, business and nonprofit organizations to “improve the health and safety of people in Thurston County.”

Thurston Economic Development Council: The EDC is a private nonprofit that acts as the state-designated economic development organization in the County. City Council members and Commissioners from local jurisdictions, the Port, and leading businesses sit on the EDC Board (For example, Heather Burgess is a recent past President.) The EDC oversees several public/private partnerships with similarly composed memberships. Among these are the Thurston Economic Alliance which is creating a plan for “economic prosperity,” and Thurston Strong which oversaw much of the distribution of grants from the federal American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) funding that was awarded Thurston County.

Lack of transparency

A major problem with the Chamber and the EDC involvement in public issues is the lack of transparency. We as citizens have the right to know both the results of decisions that shape our community including the process and people that produced those decisions. As a private organization, the Chamber is not subject to public disclosure requirements. Organization websites generally lack current information and important detail. They are not easy to navigate. The last annual report for Thurston Thrives available on its website appears to be from 2019.

There is no record on the Thurston Strong website of which businesses received grants. The Economic Alliance’s website has not been updated since 2018. The EDC met this reporter’s request for information by asking, “who wanted the information?” and “how would it be used?” This lack of transparency undermines the public’s ability to know where policies come from and how our public tax funds are used. It might also help explain why 70% of survey respondents don’t trust the City of Olympia.

Real transparency is necessary if government is to serve more than the few

Such business-driven partnerships with local governments weaken accountability and muddy the transparency the public expects from organizations doing the people’s work, making it difficult to judge their efficacy and impartiality when distributing public funds and developing and implementing public policy.

A local code of ethics should open the interactions between government and private organizations for public view. Implementing rules that require disclosure of possible conflicts for individuals and organizations lobbying local governments and agencies, and prohibiting membership of City officials and agencies in organizations that have business before the City would “create a framework for ensuring ethical conduct within its government and among its public officials and employees.”

Esther Kronenberg follows development and environmental issues as a resident of Thurston County.

Be First to Comment

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

LETTER FROM FRED: I am a proud citizen of our…