Ethics complaint uncovers lack of transparency at Federal Way City Hall

An unusual incident of rudeness by a council member becomes a bigger question about transparency.

How does an unusual incident of rudeness by Federal Way City Council member Martin Moore toward Deputy Mayor Susan Honda become a bigger question about transparency and how City Hall handled an ethics case?

This is the first of a two-part column.

Last year’s race for mayor between incumbent Jim Ferrell and council member Susan Honda was pleasant on the surface. Reality was much different, and it carried over to the council’s internal election for deputy mayor, which was won by Honda on a 4-3 vote over Lydia Assefa-Dawson, who was drafted by council member Moore when his preferred candidate Mark Koppang couldn’t get the needed votes.

Since then, it has taken another turn as an ethics complaint was filed against Moore over his behavior toward Honda after the vote.

The position of deputy mayor carries little power, although the winner does make appointments to council committees and has the ability to influence the council agenda. Honda had just run against Ferrell, and he did not want her elected as deputy mayor.

Koppang, Moore and Ferrell discussed a plan to nominate Honda supporter Assefa-Dawson for the position to draw her away from Honda and hope another council member would then switch. While the move was pretty cagey, it didn’t work, and Honda won.

At the end of the meeting, council members, in an effort to put a good face on an awkward situation, congratulated Honda and pledged cooperation. Koppang was gracious, but Moore struggled admitting it would be hard for him to put his personal feelings aside.

“I didn’t support you because I have a lot of concerns,” said Moore, who noted she had asked for his support four years ago for deputy mayor. “And you have had four years to show me you were ready.”

Many in the audience were shocked at the negative personal tone of his comments and waited for Ferrell, as the presiding officer, to rule Moore out of order or at least remind him of the appropriate decorum. Ferrell did neither. Council member Dini Duclos spoke last and captured the shock of the moment: “I’m not sure how to follow up on that.”

When asked later about his lack of intervention, Ferrell shrugged and said he thought Moore’s comments were fine. Objective attendees would disagree, and some noted that Moore was an ally of Ferrell’s and Honda was not.

That might have been the end of it. But resident Norma Blanchard thought Moore’s behavior was egregious. She filed an ethics complaint against Moore for his behavior toward Honda under section 4.1 of the City Code of Ethics, Conflict of Interest, suggesting that Moore’s comments had brought disharmony and conflict to the council’s ability to work together.

Though her point is well taken, the section refers to a legal conflict of interest, which has a distinct definition such as financial, or favoritism, not just rudeness.

The city clerk also provided Blanchard with section 7.4, which refers to a Complaint Against a Council member, stating her complaint did not meet the criteria, which is also accurate. She also transmitted City Attorney Ryan Call’s comment to Blanchard: “He feels that no reasonable attorney would find the conduct you detailed in your letter violates any rule of ethics.”

But the operative word here is “ethics.” And all residents, including Blanchard, should feel confident that all steps would be taken to ensure that impartiality and objectivity are the guiding framework for any ethics case, although prejudging what the commission might decide was an odd insertion.

Even though the city attorney offered to meet with Blanchard, she was frustrated with the city and chose to pursue the complaint.

This is where a simple complaint about rudeness becomes something more and casts the city administration’s actions in a questionable and less than transparent light.

The ethics board is usually made up of three residents, plus an alternate, appointed and confirmed by the City Council. At the time of filing, only two positions appear to have been filled, one by Saudia Abdullah and the other by Tony Pagliocco. Pagliocco’s nomination to his position was seconded by council member Moore, the person the complaint was against, and confirmed by the council.

When notified by the legal department of Blanchard’s complaint against Moore, and asked about any conflict of interest in preparation for the ethics committee to hear the case, Pagliocco advised, “I was a volunteer on Martin Moore’s re-election campaign and thus would like to know if recusal is appropriate due to conflict of interest?”

In a later conversation with City Attorney Ryan Call, Pagliocco asked again and acknowledged he considered Moore a friend and had been a visible supporter of Moore by helping to wave signs on street corners. He properly raised the question of whether he should recuse himself.

The exchange is at the heart of the ethics question of whether Pagliocco should have stepped aside. Pagliocco says Ryan didn’t ask any questions and told him it was up to him, so he stayed in the case. The two members of the ethics board then decided in executive session, with Call as their advisor, that the allegation was not sufficient to pursue an investigation and the case was dismissed.

But the operative word here is “ethics.” And all residents, including Blanchard, should feel confident that all steps would be taken to ensure that impartiality and objectivity are the guiding framework for any ethics case.

Pagliocco’s admission raises a potential cloud and should have resulted in additional questions by Call to ensure Pagliocco’s continued participation was proper. The mayor’s office says Call cannot order Pagliocco to leave the hearing, and while that’s true, Call does have a duty to ensure both fairness and more importantly the “appearance of fairness” are honored in every case.

The test is simple: would the process appear to be fair to an independent third party? Despite Pagliocco’s statement raising a concern himself, Call did not follow up with questions, according to Pagliocco.

And therein lies the problem. Read part 2 of this column next week.

Federal Way resident and former mayor of Auburn Bob Roegner can be reached at bjroegner@comcast.net.

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