At the Dec. 15 Richland City Council meeting Councilmember Phil Lemley moved to reinstate the City Council Ethics and Administration Committee because he believes that another councilmember may have been participating in meetings while under the influence of alcohol to the point of being “drunk.”
The city council has not appointed a committee chair from among its members since 2002. The proposal to resurrect the committee did not sit well with some of the councilmembers.
Councilmember Bob Thompson responded that he believed that Lemley’s proposal stemmed from Thompson’s past comments critical of the governor. Thompson said, “We need free speech.” He added, “It could become a First Amendment problem and you might not like where we end up.”
Councilmember Michael Alvarez asked Lemley what drove him to bring up the ethics committee.
Lemley said, “It’s sad that we need this in the first place.” He continued, “I’m not concerned about what is said but what is happening when it is said.”
When Thompson asked for specifics, Lemley explained, “Things have happened at council meetings that shouldn’t have happened. Coming to or being part of a council meeting drunk or drinking is wrong.”
Councilmember Thompson replied, “I agree.”
Richland city councilmembers oversee the finances of the city and adopt an annual budget that in 2020 included around $305 million in spending. They approve city ordinances; acquire land including by condemnation; and hire a city manager.
In 2019 the yearly salary for the mayor was $16,920 and for councilmembers it was $13,920. Depending on the type of health insurance plan they opted for in 2019, yearly compensation ranged from $13,920 for Councilmember Sandra Kent and former Councilmember Brad Anderson to $37,862 for then Mayor Bob Thompson.
For most non-supervisory Richland city employees, the consumption of alcohol during the course of an employee’s scheduled work day is grounds for discharge or discipline. Councilmembers, on the other hand, can only be fired by the voters.
The Observer reached out to Lemley to ask who he was referring to. Lemley did not name names but in a Dec. 18 email said that he thought the problem “came to a head” at the July 7, 2020 council Zoom meeting.
“I was trying to not accuse anyone in particular, rather point out that things have been said and actions have been done that we all know to be wrong. Reasonable people know the difference in how we should conduct ourselves in public and in private,” he wrote. “I think that having an ethics commission or policy would help remind us of our responsibilities.
In his email, Lemley did not say what about that meeting seemed inappropriate. However, the online recording of the July 7 meeting shows that in the final councilmember comment portion of the meeting Lemley called out Thompson for the language he had used during the meeting. Earlier, Thompson had dropped an F bomb, suggested a resident was a “moron” and called fellow councilmembers “goddamn soft.”
During the Dec. 15 meeting, before the city council’s discussion, City Attorney Heather Kintzley went through the city’s history with ethics boards and committees. According to Kintzley in 1967 the council created a Board of Ethics that met no less than twice a year or as needed to consider any violations of conflicts of interest and self-dealing as well disclosure of confidential information. Modifications that were made to the ordinance in 1976 appeared to bring the law in conformance with the new state open meetings law, Kintzley said. In 1992 the council added language on conduct: “Councilmembers shall conduct themselves so as not to bring disgrace or embarrassment upon the city.”
Kintzley noted that in 1993 the council, not the Board of Ethics, censured Councilmember Bob Ellis for grabbing Mayor Craig Buchanan’s arm and calling him a “jerk” and the council “criminals.” According to Kintzley, the council specified that the censure was for what Ellis did and not for what he said.
In 1998, the council eliminated the board and replaced it with the council committee making the code conform with the action that had been taken in 1993. Until 2004, a council member was appointed to head the committee. Since 2002, there has been no reference to it during the biennial appointment of councilmembers to committees.
Councilmember Sandra Kent said that she thought the council supported the Lemley proposal but that it needed revision and agreed that free speech had to be protected.
Councilmember Marianne Boring added, “We need to bring up as a gentle reminder not to say some things out loud.”
Thompson laughed, “According to you.”
The Observer emailed all of the councilmembers and asked each of them if they were the person that Lemley was referring to. In addition, the Observer asked if the councilmembers would be concerned if one of them participated in a city meeting “drunk or drinking.” Other than Lemley, only Mayor Ryan Lukson and Boring replied.
Lukson said, “Is that a joke? I’ve never been to a council meeting drunk. You should reach out to Phil.”
Boring wrote, “It certainly was not me Councilman Lemley was suggesting. All of my meetings have been virtual thus far. Please know I do my best not to speculate on any matter….” The council appointed Boring on Oct.6 to replace Anderson who resigned.
The councilmembers agreed that they wanted to continue to have an ad hoc committee and Lukson asked the city attorney to clean up the language in the ordinance to assure that free speech was protected. After that he said the Council would have another discussion on the issue.
In his email, Lemley stressed that he had no “absolute proof” that any council members had been intoxicated during meetings.
“It is very easy to do or say things in the heat of the moment that is later regretted, at least by most people. I do not have absolute proof of that issue but strongly believe that it has happened in the past. All you have to do is watch the videos and judge for yourself. I have been clueless to a point in the past, but it is my understanding that it happens more than I realize.”