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Sunday, March 29, 2020  Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Commission: Councilwoman Karen Stratton violated ethics code with letter on behalf of marijuana retailer

UPDATED: Thu., Jan. 23, 2020

City councilwomen Karen Stratton (left) and Lori Kinnear speak during the City of Spokane Parks & Recreation-hosted unveiling for the Higgins Point Overlook on Oct. 17, 2019. Stratton on Wednesday was found to have violated three provisions of the city’s ethics code and received a written reprimand. (Libby Kamrowski / The Spokesman-Review)
City councilwomen Karen Stratton (left) and Lori Kinnear speak during the City of Spokane Parks & Recreation-hosted unveiling for the Higgins Point Overlook on Oct. 17, 2019. Stratton on Wednesday was found to have violated three provisions of the city’s ethics code and received a written reprimand. (Libby Kamrowski / The Spokesman-Review)

City Councilwoman Karen Stratton violated three provisions of the city’s ethics code when she sent a letter to Pasco advocating on behalf of a Spokane marijuana retailer hoping to locate there, a volunteer panel determined Wednesday.

Stratton will receive a written reprimand in what ethics commissioners called “a teachable moment” that was the focus of a complaint filed in the midst of her 2019 re-election campaign. Commissioners were unanimous in their finding that Stratton inappropriately used city letterhead to advocate on behalf of the retailer, Lucky Leaf, which was seeking support to overturn a citywide moratorium in Pasco prohibiting them from opening another location.

Neil Muller, the Spokane resident who filed the complaint in October, said after the hearing he believed the ruling was appropriate.

“A written reprimand, I think that’s sufficient,” Muller said, adding that he was seeking clarification on the city’s ethics code so future councilmembers wouldn’t misuse their office to benefit private citizens.

Stratton argued that the letter sent in June 2018 was similar to other business-boosting efforts from lawmakers. During the hearing, Stratton defended her communication as constituent service.

“It was just the right opportunity for me to say, this is what I see in Spokane,” Stratton told ethics commissioners.

But the panel disagreed, finding that the letter singled out a single retailer for praise in rehabilitating a block of downtown that had long been neglected by development. They also found that Stratton was too personal in her entreaties to officeholders in Pasco, noting that her “experience with these businesses is personal in that we own a producer farm in Cheney, Washington.”

State law prohibits businesses holding a cannabis producer license from selling directly to retailers, like Lucky Leaf. Ethics commissioners said they weren’t concerned about a direct financial benefit to Stratton, but that she used official city resources to convey her message to the Pasco City Council.

Ethics Commissioner Michelle Bleek said the correspondence might have been appropriate if Stratton had mentioned other retailers in her letter.

“I think that anytime you find yourself in a position where you think, ‘This seems a little close to home,’ is when you have to tap the brakes a little bit, and get input from a legal adviser,” Bleek said.

Stratton testified at the hearing that she conferred with people in the City Council office before deciding to author her letter on city letterhead, but she could not remember specifically whom she talked to or what was said. It may have been the council’s legal adviser, Brian McClatchey, she said, or former City Council President Ben Stuckart.

Stratton said after the hearing that she accepted the commission’s findings.

“It was an honest mistake,” she said.

The city’s ethics code provides commissioners with multiple penalty options. The written reprimand is available when commissioners determine an elected official committed a violation, but did so without intent.

The provisions Stratton was found to have violated are written in the portion of the ethics code dealing with fair and equitable treatment by city officials and employees. That section prohibits politicians or workers from using their office to secure personal benefit for other people or to influence others to grant something of value and from using their official time and resources for lobbying efforts. Stratton argued that, depending on interpretation of that last provision, many pro-business activities undertaken at City Hall could be seen as a violation.

Muller said he was originally made aware of the letter in posts on Facebook groups around the time of last year’s election, including a group tied to the Spokane County Republicans. He told the panel that the complaint was made on his own behalf, not for any other group or professional entity.

The written reprimand, once signed by the commission, will become an official record at City Hall. The commission, created in 2006, has in the past penalized only a handful of public officials for violations of the city’s code governing elected officials and some employees, but not members of unions that have not agreed through collective bargaining to be subject to its rules.

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