Everything you need to know at Spokane City Hall, you probably learned in kindergarten: don’t steal, don’t take gifts from strangers, don’t lie.
But now those rules are codified in the city’s rulebooks, thanks to City Attorney Nancy Isserlis, who led a yearlong effort to update the city’s ethics code, and a unanimous vote from the City Council approving the changes last week.
“There’s nothing earth shattering here, but it fleshes some important things out,” Isserlis said. “It’s basically what you learned in kindergarten on how to behave right.”
The new code better defines what gifts employees and officials can accept. Calendars and coffee mugs are OK. So are flowers. If the gifts total over $100 in a year, however, the person can get in trouble.
The new rules lay out stricter penalties for rule breakers, including termination. For elected officials, the path to recall was made easier. Previously, six council members had to vote to put an elected official’s name on a recall election ballot. Now, five members have to approve.
“If you do something wrong, there’s penalties that come with it,” Isserlis said. “In the worst case, you could lose your job.”
“False and frivolous complaints” are also prohibited, a change from the past. So are “acts of moral turpitude,” which has always been frowned upon.
The new rules were originally slated for approval in September, but Councilman Jon Snyder held the ordinance back to add in “whistleblower protections.”
“It turned out our whistleblower protections were administrative policy, which doesn’t have the same force as municipal code,” Snyder said.
Before the current changes, if you made an ethics complaint against someone on the ethics committee, there was no way to remove them from hearing the complaint. There were also no penalties for “retaliation” against a complainant. Now, such action could lead to a $5,000 fine.
The new rules still have to be approved by the city’s unions, which Snyder said they could do at any time.
“It’s up them. The ball’s in their court,” he said.
Snyder noted that the city hasn’t had any whistleblower complaints in its recent history, but said that didn’t necessarily mean everything was working correctly.
“You can look at it and say we haven’t had any problems,” he said. “Or you could look at it from the other side and say the process was too arduous.”