By Sally Gillie
A complaint against Monroe City Councilwoman Patsy Cudaback, claiming she has violated ethics laws, created a stir at the Oct. 16 council meeting; with local residents coming forward to defend Cudaback’s open communications with the public.
The complaint, brought by fellow council members Kurt Goering and Kevin Hanford, accuses Cudaback of “inappropriate disclosure of confidential executive session information” that resulted in confidential information showing up on social media.
The messages deal with a series of communications via Facebook last April between Cudaback and citizen Debra Kolrud that had to do with council meeting minutes. Kolrud had raised questions about the slow turnaround time in providing a written record of city council minutes.
Information from those exchanges will be reviewed this week by the city council, who will be weighing in to determine if Cudaback disclosed information that was confidential from the city council’s executive sessions.
In his complaint, Goering referred to state law regarding executive sessions that says no municipal officer can disclose confidential information gained by that officer’s position. He said those matters discussed by the council in executive session can only be made public by council consent.
Goering said information from those exchanges resulted in information showing up in the community and social media, resulting in angry emails sent to council members and city staff.
As part of the complaint to the council Goering moved for a course of action calling for Cudaback to make a full and public apology, be issued a letter of censure, and be charged a civic penalty of $500.
Goering’s motion was seconded by Kevin Hanford, but shortly afterward Hanford withdrew his second, saying it was clear to him that not everyone on the council was clear on what the complaint was about.
Cudaback asked for a written copy, and the opportunity to respond in one week. It was decided to put Cudaback’s response on the Nov. 6 agenda, the next council meeting where Monroe City Attorney Zach Lell will be present.
Though Cudaback said she did not want to comment on what was said at the council meeting, she said last week she does not believe she has disclosed confidential council business on her Facebook page.
Lell said at the council meeting that there was no formal procedure for a complaint such as the one brought forward by Goering. “The ethics code contains a formal procedure, but what is alleged here is outside the scope of that and Goering is choosing not to pursue it through the ethics code,” he said.
Lell, who made it clear that, in his role as legal counsel for the city, he has no part in defending either party, did say later last week that the distinction being addressed, as he understands it, is the “difference between making a generic statement on one hand, and actually telling what the subject matter was.”
According to Pam James, attorney with Washington’s Municipal Research Center, Cudaback’s recourse for defending herself is limited, but the council authority to impose sanctions is, as well.
Cudaback isn’t entitled to a formal hearing, as she would be if the matter went through the ethics board. The council, including the council members who brought the complaint, can vote to find her guilty of a breach of executive session, and can impose a fine.
“But if the person doesn’t pay it, there’s no mechanism to enforce,” said James. And because council members are hired by voters, only voters can remove them, she said.
Goering said he brought the matter before the council, rather than taking it to the city’s ethics board, because of a loophole in the city’s ethics code regarding how to deal with extremely private information in executive session when it pertains to complaints involving council members.
Goering said later in the week that he will be filing a formal complaint with the state attorney general. He said he wants to make it clear that the complaint is only about the disclosure issue, and has nothing to do with using social media as a way to communicate with the public.
Eight residents came forward at the city council meeting in support of Cudaback, voicing not only their support of her, but their frustrations with recent council actions ranging from the east Monroe rezone, school mitigation fees and the cable park, to rushing through comprehensive plan changes.
“This issue of early and continuous public participation that’s in the Growth Management Act, it’s just not happening,” said local business owner Vickie Mullen. Referring to the Oct. 15 planning commission’s public hearing on design changes in North Kelsey, she said, “The vote is already in; there’s no public process here.”
Mullen and other residents who testified said they are regular followers of Cudaback’s Facebook page, and commended her efforts to keep the community engaged and informed.
“I greatly appreciate the open forum that she fosters,” said Fryelands resident Jeff Rasmussen. “It’s something that is open to all, no matter what your opinion.”
“I understand that Goering and Hanford have initiated this complaint,” Rasmussen said, “but I’m speechless that it is now out in the open; those who brought it up are not willing to discuss it. It shows lack of character and integrity.” He told the council, “You need to evaluate your position and how you interact with citizens, and more important, how you interact with each other.” He called council actions “childish,” adding, “As a citizen I don’t want to put up with that from my elected officials, it’s embarrassing.”
“When it comes to open government, I think it’s better to be more open than closed,” said resident Meredith Mechling, who once won a $157,000 settlement against the city for improperly withholding a public record. Regarding the complaint against Patsy, “Whatever it is, I hope it is tossed,” she said. “As a citizen who really values open government, I think it’s important to not restrict council members from sharing information.”
Resident Jennifer Van de Wouwer remarked on Patsy’s Facebook page, saying “how careful she always seems to be,” and how she views her Facebook page as a “way to bridge the gap between the city and community.”
“Looking at Patsy’s Facebook page helps me understand stuff that is happening,” said Joel Phillips. “She does a good job of explaining to everyone, and I’d just like to say ‘thank you.’”
Mayor Robert Zimmerman said that he thinks Goering and Hanford are acting as responsible officials.
“It is definitely an uncomfortable situation for anyone to be in as (plaintiff or or respondent), but council members Goering and Hanford, and the council as a whole, would be remiss should they not raise this question,” he said. “And likewise, I believe it is council member Cudaback’s right or duty to present her side of the story, as best she can.”
He said all on the council have behaved professionally, and he hopes the public will respect the process.