Ethics complaint could be denied because it violated confidentiality
Editor's Note: This article has been updated on July 17 to clarify that attorney Stacey Stone did not sent a copy of the ethics complaint to KBBI reporter Aaron Bolton.
In filing an ethics complaint with the city of Homer, the first rule is you don’t talk about filing an ethics complaint with the city of Homer. Heartbeat of Homer, a conservative political action group, could likely see an ethics complaint it filed on July 3 dismissed because it forwarded its complaint to Alaska media.
Heartbeat of Homer alleges that three Homer City Council members should have declared a conflict of interest when voting on a resolution acknowledging the results of the June 13 recall election.
Homer City Code 2.80.040 says that “a person filing a complaint of potential violation shall keep confidential the fact that the person has filed the complaint with the city, as well as the contents of the complaint of potential violation.” It also says that if “the Board (of Ethics) or hearing officer finds probable cause to believe that the person filing the notice of complaint violation has violated confidentially under this chapter, the Board or hearing officer shall immediately dismiss the complaint of violation.”
City Clerk Melissa Jacobsen, citing that confidentiality, could not confirm or deny that the city had received a written complaint by Heartbeat of Homer or its Anchorage attorney, Stacey Stone. She said that if a complaint was denied because of disclosure, the filing party would be notified, but she did not know if that denial could be made public.
KBBI Radio reporter Aaron Bolton on June 30 reported receiving a press release from Heartbeat of Homer saying it had filed an ethics complaint asserting Homer City Council members Donna Aderhold, David Lewis and Catriona Reynolds should have declared a conflict of interest when the council met on June 19 to vote on Resolution 17-064 acknowledging the results of the recall election. Heartbeat of Homer organized as a political group to support recalling the three council members, and its chairman, Michael Fell, led the recall petition effort. The recall failed by a near-landslide, with 56 percent voting no to recall Reynolds and 57 percent voting no to recall Aderhold and Lewis.
Suzanne Downing, a Republican Party official who writes the conservative political blog, Must Read Alaska, also reported on the ethics complaint.
Heartbeat of Homer did not send the press release to the Homer News, but KBBI published the complaint on its website and sent the Stone letter to the Homer News after a request to see it.
Last week, Stone and Fell did not reply to emails or phone messages seeking comment. In an email on July 17 to the Homer News, Stone wrote that she had no contact with KBBI. Reached by phone on Monday, July 10, Sarah Vance, spokesperson for Heartbeat of Homer, said she had been advised by Stone not to comment on the ethics complaint.
Ethics complaints can be made public if the respondents elect to proceed in public. At press time, none of the respondents have said they wish to make the complaint public. In an email, Aderhold noted that as the ethics complaint process outlines, they would not receive the complaint in any case.
“If Heartbeat of Homer filed a complaint against the three of us, per Homer City Code the hearing officer would have to deny the complaint whether or not the complaint had merit because they made the complaint public by sending a copy to KBBI,” Aderhold wrote.
In its complaint, Stone cited Homer City Code 1.18.030(b)(1) that says “no city official or the City Manager shall participate in any official action in which: 1) the person is the applicant, a party or has a substantial financial interest in the subject of the official action.” The complaint said that at the June 19 special meeting to consider the election resolution, no one declared a conflict of interest, and that Lewis seconded a motion by council member Tom Stroozas to approve Resolution 17-064, the action to certify the recall election. The motion passed unanimously and without objection.
The resolution acknowledged the results of the election as presented by the Specail Election Canvass Board. The board had met on June 16 to count absentee, special needs, questioned and absentee in person ballots. Citing a discrepancy between the number of voters who signed the log book and the number of votes cast at Homer Precincts 1 and 2, Jacobsen recommended the Canvass Board recount the June 13 ballots. The board did that, and after several hours of running every ballot through counting machines, came up with its final tally.
While city code says an official should not participate in an action in which they are a party, it also says under 1.18.030(c) that an official is allowed to participate “in official actions on behalf of the city or when the city itself is the applicant or subject of the action.”
City Attorney Holly Wells said that in the case of acknowledging the results of an election, the party would not be the council members being challenged in a recall election, but the Canvass Board — that is, the city.
“This election process is a fundamental component of our governmental structure,” Wells said in a phone interview last Friday. “It’s simply, I think, recognizing that is has been done properly and that the steps we have done in place to protect the integrity of the election process have in fact been followed.”
Wells also pointed that city code says the council “shall” certify the results of the election “following completion of the canvass by the Canvass Board.”
Council members have certain duties and obligations, she said, such as showing up to meetings. Another obligation is “meeting to certify an election when certain things have been done,” she said.
She also said that there would not be a conflict of interest in a council member voting to certify an election in which the council member was subject to recall — or running for re-election or for mayor.
If a council member or mayor had to declare a conflict of interest, then no sitting council member could run for re-election or election to mayor and then vote on acknowledging election results. In the October 2016 election, Lewis and then council member Bryan Zak also voted to acknowledge the Canvass Board’s election results declaring Zak had won election to mayor. Zak and Lewis both ran for mayor while council members.
Michael Armstrong can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.