Former City Councilmember Phil Lemley

The recent news that Councilmember Theresa Richardson pulled strings with city management to overcome a plans examiner’s safety concerns about a proposed addition to her family home demonstrates why Richland needs an active city ethics committee, former Councilmember Phil Lemley believes.

Lemley told the Observer in a telephone interview that questions raised by the October 20 article show why the Richland City Council should revive a defunct ethics committee that’s authorized in city code, as he proposed in late 2020. 

At the time, the council publicly instructed the city attorney to flesh out a revived ethics committee and bring it back to the council for discussion. However, 23 months later, that has not happened — it has not appeared on any council agenda since — because the idea was quietly quashed without public notice, the Tri-Cities Observer has learned.

The recent article concerned Richardson’s plans to add an addition to her family home. The piece described public records documenting in detail the pressure placed on city plan examiner Ty Jennings by City Manager Jon Amundson and Development Services Director Kerwin Jensen after Richardson went to the two managers asking for help. The pressure was to overlook Jennings’ safety concerns and approve her addition plan. The records showed that Jennings had been asking Richardson’s architect and structural engineer for calculations to prove safety of the addition, which included a concrete slab set above an underground room. Addressing his concerns required additional expense and at one point could conceivably have required a change of design, adding additional cost for her and her family.

To overcome his concerns, records show, Richardson talked to Jensen, visited the planning office, and met with City Manager Jon Amundson to discuss her permit despite Richland City Charter’s Section 4.05 prohibition against council interfering with staff.

Richland’s city codes, including its ethics codes governing its employees, apply within city limits. They are essentially laws.

 Municipal code 2.26.010 prohibits council members from using their position to benefit themselves personally, saying “A councilmember shall not use his/her office for personal gain, especially financial gain.”

It also states, “No public official or public employee shall use his position to secure special privileges or exemptions for himself, his spouse, child, parents, other persons or employers.” 

In addition, the Richland City Charter prohibits council members from interfering with employees other than the city manager, or even communicating with them other than for the purpose of inquiry.

Lemley: “abuse of power and influence

“If this is true, I’m just flabbergasted, and it is clearly an abuse of power and influence. I mean, there’s no two ways around it,” former councilmember Phil Lemley told the Observer in a telephone interview.

“Council, especially, an individual council member, absolutely cannot go and make any demands on a staff member, period. There’s a law that says that,” added Lemley, who now lives in Arkansas.

A city ethics committee that meets in public, Lemley said, would be the “best way to resolve this one way or the other, assuming it’s true or untrue. You would assume that everyone would want to do that too, so there’s no suspicion that you’re trying to sweep something under the rug,” he said.

According to the Richland city code, “If the council determines that a minor violation has occurred, it shall pass an appropriate motion of censure at a public meeting. The violator may demand a public hearing for minor violations. A major violation shall result in a public hearing by the council.” 

City Council’s public ethics committee discussion died quietly

City codes are routinely enforced by city employees, including police, against residents who commit a range of violations including anything from loud noise to trash in yards or disease-infested trees. 

In contrast, the Richland City Council has allowed the governing body established to enforce the ethics code concerning councilmembers and other city employees to become totally defunct.

Specifically, the city code calls for the council to establish an ethics and administration committee to receive complaints and allegations that the city ethics code has been violated. It states, “It is recognized that high moral and ethical standards among city officials are equally essential to the conduct of local and state government; that a code of ethics for the guidance of city officials is necessary in order to prevent conflicts of interest in public office, improve standards of public service, and promote and strengthen the faith and confidence of the people of the city in their governing body.”

During a December 15, 2020, Richland City Council meeting, Lemley proposed to reinstate the long-defunct city ethics committee. As for what sparked the proposal, he said that for council members to come to a meeting “drunk or drinking” is “wrong.”

Asked subsequently what he referred to, Lemley said it was a virtual meeting of the council on July 7, 2020. During that meeting, Lemley called out then-Councilmember Bob Thompson for a profanity-laced speech. In an email to the Observer, Lemley said he did not have absolute proof of any councilmember governing while intoxicated, but “it is my understanding that it happens more than I realize.” He also said, “having an ethics commission or policy would help remind us of our responsibilities.”  

At the December 2020 meeting, City Attorney Heather Kintzley said that no councilmember had been appointed to head the committee since 2002.

Councilmembers supported reviving the committee on an “ad hoc” basis. Mayor Ryan Lukson directed Kintzley to “clean up the provisions in the code and get back to us for further discussion.”

The direction was clear.

Lukson asked, “Do you believe you have sufficient direction of council?” Kintzley replied, “Absolutely.”

Earlier this year the Observer sent an email to  Kintzley asking why she didn’t fulfill the council’s request. Kintzley responded in an email: “When I followed up shortly thereafter with then-City Manager Cindy Reents, I was directed to stand down on that particular action. Under the city manager-council form of government, Council does not have the authority to direct staff.”

A separation agreement with Reents was announced on the same night that the ethics committee was discussed. Her last day was January 21, 2021.

Attempts to reach Reents for comment did not produce a response.

Ethics committee “was shut down completely,” Lemley said

Regarding his proposal to revive the ethics committee that’s in city code, Lemley said, “It was shut down completely. And, I knew it would be or figured it would be. They said that there was no need for one. Well, oversight is good for anything, and that kind of oversight is especially good in politics and city government and things like that.”

Regarding Richardson’s effort to influence city managers to affect the handling of her personal permit application, Lemley said,

“Why would you not put this to bed? If they don’t disprove it one way or the other, the rumor, that suspicion, will be there. So put it out in the open and put it to bed, if it can be done. Then you don’t have to worry about it anymore. And you will help people become more confident that the government is working for them.”

“If it’s true, it’s shocking, and I hope not a single word of it is true. If it was, like I said, I’m very disappointed and everyone up there needs to know it.”