Conflictof interest charge thrown out

Published on Thu, Feb 9, 2006
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Conflict of interest charge thrown out

Whatcom County Superior Court Judge Charles Snyder has dismissed the remaining three allegations of conflict of interest leveled at members of Blaine’s government by former council member David White.

On February 3 Snyder granted the city’s motion to dismiss the complaint against city council member Bruce Wolf and planning commission members Brad O’Neill and Sue Sturgill “for failure to make a claim upon which relief could be granted.”

A week earlier Snyder dismissed the same complaint against Blaine hearing examiner Roger Ellingson, who chose to decline city legal representation.

Blaine city attorney Jon Sitkin, who represented Wolf, Sturgill and O’Neill on behalf of the city, said White’s complaint cited the section of state law he claimed was broken, but didn’t show how the named parties had violated that law.

“The conflict of interest statute refers to having an interest in a contract,” Sitkin said. “None of them were a party to a contract which they voted on, supervised or controlled.” The complaint catalogs occasions when the named defendants participated in discussions on the Blaine boardwalk project and, in Wolf’s case, voted on contracts, grant applications and code changes that related to the project. Sitkin said that, despite the fact they owned property in proximity to the boardwalk, they did not have a contractual interest in what they were voting on or discussing, as would have been the case if, for example, one was a principal in an engineering firm being retained under contract by the city.

“There’s a difference in the appearance of fairness in a land use matter and a legal conflict of interest, and people tend to get that confused,” Sitkin said. Appearance of fairness rules require elected members to recuse themselves if they have a bias or financial interest in an official land-use decision, such as issuance of a permit. “Also sometimes people step down because they don’t want the political issues,” Sitkin added.
Sitkin said that many years ago the state legislature had voted to narrow conflict of interest laws to only include parties to a contract from which they might benefit. “If you’re talking about people who might, for example, be affected by the boardwalk, where do you draw the line?’ he said. “If that was the case in small communities you could never find anyone in a position to serve.”

Wolf said he was glad to see the matter resolved and had found it frustrating to have his participation in city business called into legal question. “I will definitely recuse myself in the future if there will even be the perception of a conflict,” he said. Wolf added, however, that as an elected official he can only distance himself from so many issues, so many times, before he becomes unable to represent his constituents. “If you’re going to be effective you need to be engaged,” he said.

White was not in court to see the complaint dismissed and could not be reached for comment. City manager Gary Tomsic stated the city intends to “seek an order to get legal costs from White.”