When Seattle council member Debora Juarez's committee held a May 2 hearing on the waterfront improvement proposal, landowners opposing a Local Improvement District—a property tax that would partially fund improvements to 20 acres of parks—packed the council chambers and spoke to a near-empty dais with just Juarez present.
Those members of the public are directly represented by one council member, Sally Bagshaw, who couldn't be there—ironically, because she's someone who would be impacted by the LID too, and therefore had a conflict of interest in the legislation.
That could finally change soon. The Seattle Ethics and Elections Commission on Thursday unanimously recommended a change to city law that could allow council members to participate and vote in bills that impact them financially.
The bill is an extension of amendments the SEEC proposed in June 2016. Council president Bruce Harrell's committee will consider the new amendment in the coming weeks.
"My voice for those who have elected me is very important," Bagshaw said at a March committee meeting. "I'm one of many. I'm one of a substantial group where the financial interests are widely shared."
In 2013, the Seattle Ethics and Elections Commission advised Bagshaw to recuse herself from participating in legislation in which she had a financial interest as a property owner. But switching to a district system complicated that rule, seeing as how the Seattle residents who would actually be affected by the bill no longer had a direct representation that could discuss the issue or have a vote. (Council members Lorena Gonzalez and Teresa Mosqueda hold citywide seats.)
"With the change in districts, (the SEEC advice in 2013) kind of denied her constituents their rights in the political process," SEEC executive director Wayne Barnett told PubliCola.
Under the amended law, council members would still have to disclose their financial interests, both on paper and at council meetings on the matter, as a transparency measure. And they can only vote on matters that financially impact them if that impact proportionately affects the elected official as much as other individuals.
For example, a tax affecting only District 7—as is the case with the Local Improvement District the council is considering—would affect Bagshaw as much as it would affect other residents she's representing in her district. In a hypothetical bill that impacts only Bagshaw, she'd still have to recuse herself.
The challenge for the council, then, is to decide where to draw the line between an "equally, proportionally" applied financial stake and one that would be considered unethical.
Barnett said he didn't know whether the council, who have taken a "very, very cautious approach" to changing the Code of Ethics for the past few years, would approve the recommendations. At a March committee meeting on a similar bill, a few council members raised concerns—including Mosqueda, whose seat is citywide, about too much focus on the council's district seats and lack of information on what would warrant too much financial stake.
"To me, it doesn't sound like we've done a ton of homework to figure out where we can better draw that line," Mosqueda said.