It’s not often that a politician sums up in one tidy quote the chief reason for not doing something just before doing it. But Spokane Valley City Councilman Dean Grafos did so last Tuesday when discussing a rule change that would allow barbed wire fences on residential property to contain animals, and on commercial property if it’s next to a public right-of-way.
Grafos and Councilman Arne Woodward have out-of-compliance fencing on property they own, but they went ahead and cast procedural votes to kick-start a proposed ordinance.
In addressing the conflict of interest, Grafos said: “I think that even though it directly affects me, I can be unbiased in my vote.”
This is precisely the reason Grafos and Woodward need to bow out of this and let others decide.
In another Spokane Valley case, six out of seven council members face a potential conflict in a proposed deal to buy property from Jack Pring, a businessman who contributed to their election campaigns. Under the proposal, the city would get four acres to expand a park, and the county would get four acres for a branch library.
This is not a case for automatic recusal. The broader benefits need to be considered. An arms-length transaction based on an independent assessment will remove any concerns. But if the city had a formal ethics code, and a panel to oversee potential conflicts, the public would gain greater certitude that the council is engaging in public service rather than helping a friend.
It’s at this point that some politicians might feel insulted by the suggestion. That’s not the point. Current officeholders can be 100 percent pure, but there is no guarantee that those who replace them will be. Plus, by showing an already jaded citizenry that it cares enough about the concept of ethics to support it with a formal structure, the council can help clear clouds of suspicion when conducting the people’s business.
There is no need to reinvent the wheel here. The Center for Public Integrity is a valuable resource for best practices.
The city of Spokane went through the process several years ago, and adopted an ethics code and established an oversight panel. Spokane Valley – or any governmental body, for that matter – can crib from those efforts. The Valley council would be wise to read Spokane’s code, particularly this section: “No City officer or employee may benefit either directly or indirectly from any legislation or contract to which the City shall be a party. …”
Spokane Valley is the 10th-largest city in the state and home to nearly 90,000 people. It’s not a quaint hamlet where “trust us” is good enough. The city would boost its credibility by setting aside situational ethics and adopting a more professional approach.