January 15, 2008 in Opinion

Decision valuable

The Spokesman-Review
 

A Peaceful Valley resident who challenged Spokane City Councilman Al French under the city’s Ethics Committee seemed to take her disappointment in stride last week.

She conceded that the decision clearing French was probably sound as a matter of legality, and she’s pleased that the committee took a look at it, but she still thinks French acted unethically. “I feel it was cronyism at best,” said Patty Norton.

In October, when the City Council was considering adjustments to the areas eligible for a tax break on multifamily dwellings, French proposed the addition of some land in Peaceful Valley. This could have benefited one of architect French’s clients, who was building a townhouse project.

To Norton, that was a conflict of interest, so she raised the issue with the Ethics Committee. The Ethics Committee unanimously concluded that it was not – or at least not sufficient to warrant penalties.

While Norton may be disappointed that no wrongdoing was found and no consequences imposed, she has the satisfaction that the matter was raised in public and vetted through a methodical process. For his part, French has a finding to point to, should the issue be raised in the future.

Taxpayers and voters can make their own ultimate judgments about the councilman’s actions, but as an official matter, finality has been reached.

In making its ruling, the committee observed that French’s client had paid him for his work before the amendment was proposed. Also, the client was but one property owner among many who were affected. At some level, all the actions taken by all council members affect any friends and associates who are city residents.

For what it’s worth, although French voted on his own amendment that night, he abstained three weeks later when the council eventually rejected the expansion. And he disclosed his connection publicly.

Given all those circumstances, it would have been a stretch to find that the pattern amounted to unethical behavior. It would also be a stretch to discount any possibility that French’s business connection influenced his political actions.

What may be more important as a practical matter, is that the existence of the ethics code and committee pushed the issue into public view. Not only did it afford Norton a venue for examining the events, it also prompted French to review the details with a city attorney, plus the mitigating steps he took by abstaining and disclosing at the Oct. 29 council meeting.

When and if the city has to deal with clear-cut corruption, the Ethics Committee will be an invaluable tool. More often, though, its value may be in teasing out the complexities that come up when citizen lawmakers take formal actions that affect themselves, their associates and their neighbors. The mere existence of a forum for weighing those issues out in the open may produce even more accountability than was expected.


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