Since the release of city records suggesting that Councilwoman Theresa Richardson sought and received special treatment in the handling of her family’s permit application, at least three Richland citizens have asked for a city ethics investigation.

But their appeals for the council to investigate the matter have received no answers from councilmembers so far. Whether the Richland City Council will take up the matter is unclear.

Two people questioned the propriety of Richardson’s actions during the city council’s public meeting on Nov. 15, joining an emailed request for an investigation that was shared with the Observer.

“I’m concerned that the council has been silent on the apparent abuses of power and ethics violations that Ms. Richardson began demonstrating within months of joining the board…council needs to follow through on the creation of an ethics committee…This matter screams for an investigation,” Molly Petersen told the Richland City Council during the public comment period.

Richardson was elected in 2021 and joined the city council in Jan. 2022.

Petersen was followed by Ginger Wireman, who said, “I’m really concerned about not having any ethics codes or not enforcing any ethics codes. It’s even more of a mystery to me when we have two attorneys sitting on our city council that are so willing to turn a blind eye to ethics violations.”

Councilmembers Ryan Lukson and Sandra Kent are attorneys.

The recently disclosed documents concerned Richardson’s plans to add an addition to her family home. An Oct. 20 article described public records documenting how Richardson went to City Manager Jon Amundson and Development Services Director Kerwin Jensen to discuss a permit for an addition to her personal home, which had run into resistance due to safety concerns. Jensen then pressured the city plans examiner, Ty Jennings, in a manner one witness described as appalling. The pressure was to overlook Jennings’ safety concerns – “That’s how people die,” Jennings had warned Jensen – and approve the councilmember’s addition permit. Addressing his concerns called for additional contractor work and financial expense for Richardson and her family, conceivably including a different design. 

In the end, Jennings approved the permit but resigned, writing, “We have let integrity fall victim to politics, permitting those with political power to influence how we react.”

Former councilmember Phil Lemley, called the public records-based findings, if true, “clearly an abuse of power and influence.” 

According to the Richland city code, “a councilmember shall not use his/her office for personal gain, especially financial gain.”

However, it’s unclear how an alleged ethics violation would be considered. Complaints alleging ethical violations by members of the city council or a council-appointed board, commission or committee are supposed to be considered by a city ethics and administration committee. But that complaint must come from a member of the same council, board, commission or committee.

Not only that, but the council has not named such a committee since 2002. In 2020, Lemley called to revive the ethics committee to consider the conduct of former Councilmember Bob Thompson, who Lemley believed was drinking when he used foul language during a council Zoom meeting.

On December 15, 2020, the council held a workshop to discuss the status of the ethics committee with City Attorney Heather Kintzley. Councilmembers agreed the code needed to be updated to eliminate free-speech issues. Lukson suggested that the council come back for a more “robust discussion,” adding that he was in favor of an ad hoc committee instead of a permanent one.  

“I don’t think it would take more than one meeting for us to form a committee if we really needed to if there was an actual violation alleged, but I think we need to clean up the provisions of the code,” Lukson said.

He asked Kintzley, “do you believe you have sufficient direction from Council?”

Kintzley replied “Absolutely.”

On Aug 21, 2022, in response to a question from the Observer, Kintzley said she took no action because the city attorney takes direction from the city manager. According to Kintzley, outgoing former city manager Cindy Reents directed her to “stand down on that particular action.”

Reents did not respond to requests for comment.

The state ethics code, RCW 42.52, applies to all officials in the state, and like the Richland code prohibits the use of public office for personal gain. The state executive ethics board  accepts complaints from state officials and from citizens, but does not have jurisdiction over local officials such as city council members.

In short, ethics complaints against local officials are left to the local governments. The Richland ethics code that applies to councilmembers and council-appointed board members does not allow for citizen complaints.

In an email from the Observer to councilmembers asking if they would be willing to amend and revive the city ethics committee as was discussed in 2020, only two responded, Lukson and Richardson.

“If I remain on council after the new year, I’m happy to respond to your questions on this topic” Lukson wrote in a Nov. 9 email “At the moment, it’s not something I’m actively considering.”

Lukson lost his race for Benton County Prosecutor and has since indicated that he will stay on the Richland council. His council term is up in 2025.

“According to our City Attorney, an ethics committee still exists under the RMC and is empaneled on an ad hoc basis so there is nothing to ‘revive,’ Richardson wrote, along with advice to talk to Kintzley if there were any questions.

Kintzley responded in a Nov. 12 email that there was no chair and no members of the committee. The Observer asked who a complaint would go to if there was no chair to receive it as the code requires. She said, “In the absence of a chair to receive the complaint, it would logically be submitted to the mayor.”

On Nov. 13, Chris and Jayne Tracy sent an email to councilmembers asking if there would be an investigation of potential ethics violations by Richardson.

Kintzley responded on Nov. 16,  “Thank you for your email. The City Council has been fully briefed on the matter. No member has asked to activate the Ethics & Administration Committee at this time.”  

It’s unclear if a secret executive session the council held at their Nov. 15 meeting was related to the Richardson permit matter. The minutes for the meeting describe a 90-minute meeting as one “to receive and evaluate complaints or charges brought against a public officer or employee.”