Richland Councilmember Theresa Richardson at a recent city council meeting

Councilmember Theresa Richardson may have violated recusal requirements when the Richland City Council voted Aug. 17 for funding for a sign for the local Habitat for Humanity’s resale shop.

Richardson read a statement at the meeting recusing herself from voting on the sign funding matter due to a conflict of interest. After citing Richland Municipal Code 2.26.062, which requires that members with conflicts “not vote or participate” in the discussion, she praised at length the group that she once led. 

She also praised her son Jet Richardson, who is Habitat’s current director.

Richardson was the director of the local Habitat affiliate, Tri-County Partners, until the end of 2019 when she resigned and was replaced in the job by her son Jet. 

This is the fourth time since Richardson took a seat on the council on January 4, 2022, that a matter regarding her son or Habitat has come before a city entity, and the treatment of the potential conflict of interest has varied.

The RMC states that any councilmember who believes there has been an ethics violation must submit a written statement to the “council ethics and administration committee.” No such committee exists at this time.

Richland City Attorney Heather Kintzley told the council during a discussion of the issue at the December 15, 2020 council workshop that in 2002 no councilmember was appointed to the committee, and no one has been appointed since.

“I do still believe there is benefit to updating this section of code, along with several others, and I am working through updates of several RMCs in balance with other priorities,” Kintzley responded to the Observer when asked for an update on the ethics committee discussion in 2020. 

Kintzley also said an ethics violation of recusal requirements, if it existed, wouldn’t negate the vote on the funding.

A grant for $1500 in funding for Habitat’s resale shop signage passed by a vote of 4-0. Councilmembers Sandra Kent and Jhoanna Jones were absent.

Planning commission appointment

When the city council voted on Jet Richardson to be a member of the Richland Planning Commission, Richardson recused herself from the council vote.

However, Planning Commission members considering the appointment weren’t told Jet was Richardson’s son.

“I had no idea until you called,” Planning Commission Vice Chair Michael Mealer told the Observer.

Jet Richardson proposes the city assign staff to work with a committee on housing

On August 1, Habitat Director Richardson gave a presentation to the council in which he pitched a “tightly coordinated working relationship” with a housing committee including Habitat and the city.  

Richardson did not mention any conflict of interest and participated in the discussion with questions.

“Thirty million dollars in the community, that’s remarkable. I had no idea it was that high,” Councilmember Richardson remarked about the increase in value Jet Richardson described for the 151 homes Habitat had built in the area.

“How many foreclosures have you had?” she asked.

“We’re the only affiliate in the country that has not had a foreclosure,” Jet Richardson responded.

“And I think that is testimony to how you partner with the families. They really are connected to you and if they have a need, then they reach out to you,” Councilmember Richardson said.

Kintzley says recusal only required for a vote

The Observer reached out to Kintzley to ask if a recusal was required at that meeting and she replied, “No, because the issue of empaneling a committee was not under consideration by Council at that time. It was an information presentation only.”

The Washington State Executive Ethics Board goes further than the RMC in its advice to state officers and employees.

The board points out that “Conflicts of interest involve the concepts of benefit and bias. Questions to ask yourself when evaluating a potential conflict of interest include: Will your outside interests benefit as a result of your official action? Would a reasonable person conclude that a private or personal interest impairs your independent and impartial judgment in the exercise of your official duties?”

The board recommends totally stepping out of the situation if any of those apply.