Lincoln City: Mayor Williams wins first round against his fellow councilors – Allegations tossed out by State Ethics Commission.
Lincoln City Mayor Don Williams is breathing a sigh of relief as the State Ethics Commission dismissed ethics complaints lodged by the city council. The council contended that Mayor Williams was actively working, behind the scenes, to get city vacation rental rules changed that would have financially benefitted his family since they own vacation rentals.
This afternoon Ethics Commission Director Ronald Bersin told News Lincoln County that the vote was 5 to zero to not pursue an ethics violation because of what their preliminary investigation produced. Bersin said the test of moving ahead with such an action depends on whether there was a “substantial objective basis” on which to base that investigation. Berlin said the commission voted that there was no substantial objective basis that an ethics violation occurred.
The Ethics Commission investigator didn’t think there was enough back up material, or evidence, that pointed to ethics violations that met the criteria of having a substantial objective basis for proceeding further. Also that Mayor Williams appears to be in an “economic class,” VRD owners, which means he would not be the only person who benefited from his actions on the council if the rules were changed by the council.
The complaint to the State Ethics Commission goes on for 24 pages about the sequence of events that led to the council filing an ethics complaint against Mayor Williams. The investigator contends that references to executive sessions (confidential meetings by the city council) were held, but not all relevant records from those sessions were forwarded to the Ethics Commission investigator. The investigator expressed frustration that important documentation including incomplete audio recordings of the meetings were not provided to him.
As part of Williams’ response to the charges, Williams’ attorney pointed out that during an executive session City Attorney Richard Appicello informed Mayor Don Williams that his VRD was in violation of the maximum number of nights his property is allowed to be rented. The attorney also observed that Appicello’s statement that Williams’ going home and telling his wife about it, as being a violation of executive session confidentiality – is not a violation – since the object of the violation is a law enforcement citation, which is a public act involving public documents (the citation). Therefore Mr. Williams’ statement to his wife is not a violation of executive session confidentiality.
Williams’ attorney also consistently complained that only selected pieces of executive session testimony and documentation were forwarded by Appicello to the Ethics Commission which, Williams’ attorney contends, leaves out a lot of important material.
Finally Williams’ attorney points out that Williams is but one VRD owner among other VRD owners who own 300 VRDs in Lincoln City – so his having strong opinions about VRD regulations does not pertain only to his own financial benefit – it affects all owners. Williams’ attorney also contended that Williams belongs to an “economic class” (VRD owners) among all Lincoln City residents. By his asserting his opinion about VRD regulations, he is not using his office as mayor to his own exclusive benefit. It is a generalized issue – city wide – which any city council member is expected to discuss with his or her fellow councilors in or out of executive sessions, whether it’s an issue of personal cost or profit resulting from city council actions.
This particular point is outlined by the Ethics Commission investigator. He writes: “The law prohibits a public official from using, or attempting to use their official position to obtain a financial gain or avoid a financial loss for themselves, a relative or household member, or a business with which they, their relative or household member are associated if the financial benefit would not otherwise have been available but for the holding of their official position.” The investigator continues: “State law states that a public official may not attempt to further their personal gain through the use of confidential information gained in the course of, or by reason of holding a position as a public official. Williams contends his statements were for the benefit of all VRD owners, not just himself.
By the way, Williams denied his property was out of compliance with city VRD codes. The investigator also pointed out that personal notification of the violation during a confidential executive session, does not prohibit Williams or the co-owners of the VRD from disputing the city’s notice of violation in public since all such notifications are of public record.
The investigator concludes that “Most of the allegations in this complaint are supported by very limited and selected portions of records or summaries of executive session discussions. The complaint was prepared by the city attorney, who also appears to be a very prominent participant in, and in some cases, the instigator of, the executive session discussions described or quoted in the complaint.”
He goes on: “The information available appears to be insufficient to constitute a ‘substantial, objective basis’ to believe that Mr. Williams committed a violation of ‘conflict of interest’ and ‘(illegal) use of office provisions of Oregon Government Ethics.'”
The Ethics Commission voted unanimously, 5-0, to dismiss the city council’s complaint.
Reaction from the city council has been one of surprise but some seem interested in continuing the fight – one indicating there may be other actions taken by the council. A telephone call to City Attorney Richard Appicello’s office was not immediately returned.