Appearance of Fairness in Appointing the Committee

One crew member has applied for the new ferry advisory committee, but there’s a real chance that the Council won’t even consider his (Mark Richardson’s) application.  Why? Because some on the County Council are worried about hypothetical issues of ‘appearance of fairness’ or ‘conflict of interest’.

It’s true that decision-makers like County Council members or the Executive can sometimes have conflicts of interest or can make premature judgments about issues that they have to vote on and make law.  In such cases, they are supposed to recuse themselves (which happens very, very rarely).

But this situation does not apply to citizen advisory committees. Advisory committees have no ‘decider’ power.  The Council and Executive are completely free to ignore anything (in part or whole) any advisory committee recommends. 

So there are no grounds — ethical or legal — for disqualifying ferry crew members from the advisory committee, any more than there are grounds for automatically disqualifying others in the applicant pool who have strongly and publicly expressed  political positions related to ferry operations.

I and many other people have written to or talked with County Councilors about this, asking them to consider all applicants equally based on their skills, knowledge etc and not to discriminate against the one citizen applicant who is a ferry crew member.

The PLIC Board just sent out an email describing their detailed understanding of the situation (same as mine, with more background information), including conversations with Frank Abart who said he had no problem with a crew member applying or being appointed.

Hopefully reason rather than needless anxieties over ‘appearing fair’ will prevail when appointments are made tomorrow night.

Here is the PLIC Board’s statement, copied from their email dated Mar 25, 2012:

Greetings.

The PLIC Board wants to share some information and fact-finding about a possible appointment of a ferry crew member by the Whatcom County Council to its new Lummi Island Ferry Advisory Committee. This committee is on the agenda for appointment Tuesday night, March 27 (i.e., this week). Mark Anderson has submitted an application for consideration by the Council for one of the 7 positions on the committee. He is an island resident and a captain on the Whatcom Chief crew. He and another crew member applied for the Ferry Task Force that the County formed as part of the PLIC initiative in 2011. Neither was selected. The reason given, unofficially, was conflict of interest. The same concern arose from some Council members when they got word that the ferry crew was interested in representation on the advisory committee.

So, we checked it out.

Conclusion: It is legal, ferry crew members are qualified, and the department they work for – Public Works – does not object. The committee advises only, and has no power to make decisions that would compromise any of the participants with the County government.

In a long, wide-ranging conversation recently with Frank Abart, the director of Whatcom County Public Works, he told a PLIC Board representative that he saw no conflict of interest probability for a ferry crew member serving on the committee. –First, Mr. Abart made it clear that the committee is a Council committee, not a Public Works committee. –Second, he said that the only possible conflict of interest he could think of would be if that person performed committee work while on the clock. | –Finally, he volunteered that he would relay to the crew that Public Works has no concerns or objections about a crew member serving on the committee. Mark Anderson is fully eligible for the committee appointment, as is any other county employee who lives in Whatcom County and who is a registered voter.

There is no ordinance preventing a qualified applicant to serve on a Council-appointed committee because they are county employees. Several islanders have questioned crew members informally about the forming of the committee, and consensus ran strong among the crew that it should be represented on the advisory committee. Many islanders have expressed the same belief, that the crew has valuable insights into ferry operations and would serve well in an advisory capacity. All of this has been discussed by a PLIC Board member in person with Council member Carl Weimer, who wrote the resolution for forming the advisory committee, and who initially expressed a concern about conflict of interest. He said that he would reconsider that position, based on law, qualifications, Mr. Abart’s approval, and the limited scope of the committee’s charge.

With this supportive information, if you feel that a crew member, Mark Anderson, would bring value to the ferry advisory committee, write an email or leave a phone message to that effect to each member of the County Council before the application deadline for the committee at 4 p.m. this Tuesday. Contact information appears below.

Thank you.

Sincerely, The PLIC Board of Directors

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