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French cleared on ethics

The Spokane Ethics Committee has cleared City Councilman Al French in accusations that he violated ethics rules when he supported maintaining bus bench advertising.

French asked the committee in August to take up the case after he was criticized for leading an effort to maintain bus bench ads. Late last year, the committee received two complaints alleging that French’s successful effort to change city law to allow bench ads was aimed at helping a business client who is a part-owner in an advertising company.

In a decision made earlier this month and finalized in writing last week, the committee ruled that the bus bench advertising rules that French championed “did not result in a direct or indirect benefit, either financial or otherwise” to French or French’s client. They also said French did not have a conflict of interest related to the issue.

At the time of the bench debate last spring, French was performing architectural work for Thomas Hamilton, co-owner of Emerald Outdoor Advertising, on an apartment complex in Airway Heights. At the time, Emerald, which also uses the name Sunset, maintained most of the city’s bus benches.

Last spring, Mayor Mary Verner argued that bus bench ads violated city law and she pursued their removal. But before the benches were hauled away, French successfully persuaded City Council to amend the law to allow the advertisements.

Since then, Emerald lost the city contract for bus benches. Creative Outdoor Advertising of Jupiter, Fla., is the new bench provider.

French, who is a candidate this year for Spokane County commissioner, said his goal was to continue to provide bus stop seating without cost to taxpayers. He said he purposely stayed away from the process of awarding a bench contract.

“It wasn’t about Hamilton or Sunset,” French said in an interview this week. “It was about bus benches.”

The complaints were filed by Dan Simonson and Suzanne Markham of Citizens for a Scenic Spokane, which opposed bench ads.

Markham, president of the organization, said Thursday that the committee’s decision is a reflection of a weak ethics code.

“It is so loosely written and so open for interpretation you basically would have to see someone take a direct bribe and stick it in their pocket,” she said.