By The Herald Editorial Board
Further details from an investigation by the Snohomish County chapter of the NAACP that allege discriminatory acts against Lynnwood City Council member Josh Binda related to the council’s investigation of allegations of misconduct by Binda aren’t providing full vindication for Binda or fellow council members, in particular, Council President Shannon Sessions.
But there’s enough here for some soul-searching and contemplation among all involved.
Although a full report on the investigation by the chapter isn’t expected until later this year, the preliminary findings primarily defend the 23-year-old Black elected official regarding an allegation that he had sought reimbursement for unauthorized travel to a National League of Cities Conference in Washington, D.C., in April. Sessions, the NAACP’s report holds, claimed Binda did not have her or the council’s permission to attend the conference, in effect denying reimbursement for the travel expenses and registration fees.
The report, however, finds that Binda — a duly elected official — didn’t need the council’s prior authorization to attend the conference and that the city’s written policy states that no such advance authorization on travel was required and was not necessary for reimbursement. Although some city council members may have been operating on a different understanding of that policy, the report points to written policy that allocates up to $2,500 for each council member to use at his or her discretion for city business or personal edification.
“Mr. Binda had the authority to utilize his allocated funds for the trip,” a summary of the findings states. “He did not need permission from the Council President or the Council.”
The city’s travel policy states that “all travel, education, or training expenditures by City Councilmembers and the Mayor, shall be at their individual discretion.”
Binda attended the conference and spoke to youth delegates at a closing session as a replacement for U.S. Rep. Maxwell Frost, D-Fla. Not mentioned in the NAACP report was Binda’s claim on Instagram following the conference that he had been a “keynote speaker” at the event, an exaggeration of his role. Yet such an appearance — in particular as an elected official speaking to youth delegates from across the county — would seem an appropriate role for a young council member representing the city and its diverse community.
The report further alleges that Sessions, in discussing the issue with media outlets, “shared erroneous information” and bypassed the city’s public information officer, “presenting her opinions as facts” that aimed to discredit Binda.
The report also alleges — although without citing specifics or examples — that the council has passed new rules since Binda’s arrival on the council in 2022 that affect Binda’s ability to serve as a member of the council and make a living, calling them “retaliatory tactics to create barriers to deter the younger generation from participating in the electoral process.”
Binda’s tenure on the council has been mired in controversy over rule violations and broken norms, but there was hope earlier this year that he and the council could move beyond the strife, following a four-month investigation sought by the council that resulted in an agreement and an apology from Binda.
The investigation looked at alleged violations of city ethics standards that included Binda’s use of public resources for personal gain, including use of city email for personal business and entering City Hall after hours to make a promotional video for a speaking tour of public schools from which he made about $14,500. The fees he charged to speak at schools in Lake Stevens, Northshore and Bothell school districts were deemed unusual but not illegal by state officials.
A settlement, arranged by the investigator, required him to admit to and apologize for the ethics violation and pledge not to violate ethics standards in the future. In exchange, the city council would not seek review of the matter by a state ethics board.
Binda apologized at a May 8 council meeting, but at the same time attempted to minimize the matter, blunting the sincerity of his regret:
“I just want to emphasize point two of this agreement that clearly states that I was not aware or knowingly committed any violation,” Binda said at the meeting. “This is a very minor infraction that is pretty common in politics, and the fact that this got blown into this proportion is very unfortunate.”
As with a $1,000 fine by the state Public Disclosure Commission for campaign finance violations, including late filings and ineligible expenses, Binda has chalked up the errors as unintentional and youthful mistakes.
To Binda’s point, the PDC’s online archive of enforcement shows a long list of violations by candidates and officials, most older and more experienced than he.
And such errors can offer opportunities to learn and develop as a public servant.
Binda’s task now is to show he’s benefiting from these teachable moments. He may have to do so quickly.
A recall campaign, authorized by a county Superior Court judge, can now gather signatures to put a question before Lynnwood voters that could remove Binda from the council.
Prior to his May 8 apology, Binda was given counsel from a fellow Black official, state Rep. John Lovick, D-Mill Creek, who spoke on a podcast with Seattle journalist Brandi Kruse. Lovick, at that time, told Kruse that Binda should resign.
“Yes, yes and yes. Absolutely without a doubt,” Lovick said. “When I met Joshua, I think it was 2021, he was a talented young man. I was most impressed with him. I didn’t hesitate; I endorsed him. … But what I found is that he was not going to listen. …”
The Herald Editorial Board also endorsed Binda in his 2021 campaign, noting an impressive “educational, work and community service resume that he has developed in a relatively brief time.” But Binda also promised he had the maturity to recognize he couldn’t rely solely on his own thoughts and preferences in serving in a council role.
Binda, if he is to survive a recall effort, will have to make the case that he can admit to and learn from his mistakes and put his council work and the city’s needs above self-promotion. At the same time, however, his fellow council members should allow him the opportunity to do so by showing more discernment in their criticisms of him.