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Governing while owning property ethically tricky, Seattle City Council finds

The Seattle City Council has paused its plans to loosen its ethics laws. Under current law, council members can’t vote on legislation that could benefit them financially. A proposed new law would loosen that restriction, as long as they were open about conflicts of interest. 


Wayne Barnett is Seattle’s official ethics watchdog. He took me to First Avenue and Spring Street, so we could gaze at city Councilmember Sally Bagshaw’s condominium.

Barnett: “It’s a gorgeous building.”

Once the Viaduct comes down, Bagshaw’s building will have a great view of the waterfront.

That’s why Barnett advised Bagshaw to recuse herself from working on legislation that affects public investments in the waterfront.

Barnett: “It would impact the value of her condominium.”

But this is where Barnett, the ethics watchdog, says something unexpected. He supports loosening the rules. He says democracy suffers when Bagshaw has to recuse herself, because now we vote for council members by district. And Bagshaw is one of only three council members who officially represent the downtown waterfront.

Barnett: “I do think it’s a problem to not have the person at the table who’s really there to advocate for the interests of their neighbors.”

Council member Tim Burgess: “I don’t buy the argument that just because we’ve shifted to district elections, we should somehow lower our ethical standard.”

Burgess says in his nine years on city council, people have had to recuse themselves due to a conflict of interest only twice.

That has him asking: “Why are we doing this?”

He couldn’t come up with an answer. So he put the brakes on the legislation, holding it back for two weeks until he could propose an amendment that he could live with.