ARLINGTON — A remark by an Arlington city councilwoman in a news article, in which she called the mayor “corrupt,” led council members to explore rules for civility at a workshop Tuesday — but not before the elected official who made the accusation left the room, upset.
In comments in a Nov. 8 election story in the Arlington Times, incumbent Sue Weiss, who is losing to Michele Blythe in a race to retain her seat, said she was disappointed that citizens would have to contend with more of the same for another four years with someone she deemed corrupt. Her unsubstantiated claim was in reference to Mayor Barb Tolbert, who on Tuesday was ahead by 35 votes in her bid for re-election.
According to the Times, Weiss wrote: “I am most disappointed for the citizens of Arlington that will have to contend with more of the same for the next four years from the most corrupt mayor I have ever known! My hope for Arlington is that in a couple years, more people will take a stand and run for City Council.”
The accusation drew the ire of council members.
Councilwoman Debora Nelson introduced an item not on the agenda at the end of the meeting that served the purpose of calling out Weiss publicly for her remark and exploring codes of conduct to prevent similar situations in the future.
“Council member Weiss made unsubstantiated accusations of corruption within our city government in the Arlington Times last week,” Nelson said. “I’m unaware of her reporting any alleged wrongdoings to the state auditor during her four-year term on the council.”
Weiss, sitting across from Nelson, spoke over her, saying that the workshop was not the venue for a discussion on conduct. She added that she was under no obligation to run by others what she said to the press. Meanwhile, the mayor tried to call for order.
Weiss then stood up, grabbed her things and walked out of the chambers.
Nelson said Weiss’s words “are breaking the norms of civility we expect in this governing body.”
She said she believed Weiss’s comments called into question not only the mayor’s integrity but that of the city staff and council.
“These statements reveal a level of seriousness that council needs to consider what actions we need to take to assure that behavior like this is not accepted as a norm in the future,” Nelson said.
Nelson asked the city administrator and city attorney to bring forward options for a code of conduct and ethics policies for council members, the mayor and commission members, including rules of procedure if the code of conduct is broken.
City Attorney Steve Peiffle said many cities have approached the topic different ways.
“Many cities have a municipal code of ethics which describes how you want council interaction to be, whether it’s at a meeting or not,” Peiffle said.
The council already has basic rules and procedures that address conduct at public meetings.
What’s being asked by the council goes a little further. Peiffle said a code of ethics or conduct is a “statement of aspirational standards” for how the governing body aims to behave and conduct business. Some governments add a layer that refers to interaction with the public and the media.
While state law bars municipal officers from engaging in certain conflicts of interest and unethical behavior, some cities and counties adopt their own ethics codes that include more restrictions.
Some cities, such as Lynnwood and Ferndale, use a complaint process and rely on ad-hoc ethics committees or majority council votes to adjudicate complaints, case by case. Remedies can range from from verbal admonition, resolutions of reprimand or censure, or in extreme instances removal from office.
Peiffle said Arlington has not adopted a code of ethics or conduct during his lengthy tenure as city attorney, despite contentious times.
“I think with the way political discourse is occurring across the country, it’s at least worthwhile for the council to look at this, and make a decision whether you want to adopt some more specific set of rules or guidelines,” he said.
Mayor Tolbert added that it’s important that elected officials remain civil when they deal with staff, too.
“There have been issues where it would have been nice to have a code of conduct,” she said. “It would be helpful to have guidelines we can use when something happens inappropriate.”
Other councilmembers said it makes sense to have some ground rules in place to promote civility and to know when you’ve crossed a line.
Councilmember Jan Schuette thanked and supported Nelson’s request but was surprised the city didn’t already have a code of conduct.
When she read her fellow councilwoman’s unsubstantiated words, she took them to apply to the mayor, council, city administrator and directors.
“Anytime somebody says something like that, it’s a dark shadow over our entire city administration,” Schuette said. “Hopefully, it will never happen again.”
City administrator Paul Ellis said they hope to have a draft document to the council for review in February.
Listen to the full meeting here:
This story originally appeared in The Arlington Times, a sibling paper to the Herald.