Edgar Suggests Conflict of Interest on Annexation Vote; Robison Says None Exists
[This is the first of three reports involving City Councilman Gerald Robison, allegations of a conflict of interest, and the North Highline Unincorporated Area Council.]
Near the end of the April 16 Burien City Council meeting, Councilman Bob Edgar turned to City Manager Mike Martin and asked a question opponents of North Highline annexation have raised.
When, Edgar wanted to know, are council members legally required to recuse themselves from voting on an issue in which they have an apparent personal interest?
Conflicts of interest for elected local officials are addressed by Title 42 of the Revised Code of Washington, specifically Chapter 23 of that title, City Attorney Craig Knutsen replied at Martin’s request.
The RCW narrowly focuses on contracts in which a council member could benefit financially with their vote, and the appearance of fairness in quasi-judicial hearings such as land-use matters, Knutsen said.
He later told The B-Town Blog he knows of no case law – decisions by appellate courts – or regulatory actions that have amended these RCW provisions.
Robison has, on occasion, provided legal advice to the North Highline Area Unincorporated Council (NHUAC), annexation opponents have noted.
This, they claim, indicates he is the unincorporated area council’s attorney, meaning he has a conflict of interest should have recused himself from the city council’s recent annexation vote.
The city council voted 4-3 on April 2 to submit the annexation question to unincorporated North Highline voters in the November general election. Under state law, only legal residents of an area proposed for annexation are allowed to vote on the issue.
Robison voted with the majority while Edgar cast a no vote. Both spoke in support of their respective positions before casting their votes.
Councilman Edgar’s Concerns
“I do have some concerns about whether the issues of conflict of interest and recusal should have been considered by Jerry Robison as it relates to the annexation issue,” Edgar told The B-Town Blog Friday.
“Jerry was and quite possibly still is the attorney for the NHUAC. The public record shows this.”
But, Edgar noted, he was not the first to raise these questions, adding that Burien resident Debi Wagner publicly brought them to the council’s attention before their April 2 meeting. [Neither] the city attorney, Jerry, nor the city manager answered her.”
And NHUAC members “have claimed that Jerry has never been their attorney,” he said.
Edgar cited three NHUAC records to support his claim:
- Minutes from the Oct. 6, 2011, NHUAC meeting, in which members discussed whether to continue after King County funding for unincorporated area councils ended on last Dec. 31, state in part that council President Barbara Dobkin “had consulted lawyer Jerry Robison” on the matter.
- At their Dec. 2, 2010, meeting, NHUAC members, according to the minutes, were told by Jenn Ramirez-Robson, speaking in the absence of Martin, “that Jerry Robison – who has served as lawyer for the NHUAC … – is about to be appointed to an opening on the Burien City Council.”
- And in advance of the June 3, 2010, NHUAC meeting, listed on the agenda was “Jerry Robison, NHUAC attorney.”
Councilman Robison’s Response
Robison told The B-Town Blog Friday that while he has “given legal advice to the [North Highline] Unincorporated Area Council” – personal advice about what he thinks regarding by-laws and procedures – “but I have not been their attorney in the sense of representing them.”
And, Robison continued, “I have been paid no retainer or fee for doing this. I do the same thing for lots of local non-profits in helping them with their 501c3 applications, their incorporation and bylaws, and advice on issues” – all in a pro bono capacity.
“Just because I’m an attorney doesn’t mean there’s a conflict of interest every time the city hires an attorney,” Robison argued.
“Edgar should also apply his conflict of interest standard to himself,” he added. Edgar has been “involved with anti-annexation organizations. Maybe this should recuse himself.
“He’s also a member of the Shorewood Community Council. Should he recuse himself every time the city council votes on something involving Shorewood?”
There is one exception to this – that occurred 16 years ago, Robison noted. In 1996, not long after the first NHUAC members were elected, both the council and its first president, Glenn Weiss, were sued.
At first King County said it wouldn’t provide legal representation for NHUAC or Weiss, Robison recalled, “So I filed notice of appearance to represent both the council and Weiss.”
“The county subsequently reversed itself and represented the council. I continued to represent Glenn Weiss to get the complaint against him dismissed, which I did….
“The Unincorporated Area Council never paid me anything for that but George might have paid me something. That was over 15 years ago and I got rid of those billing records some time ago.”
Although NHUAC “reimbursed me when I paid out of my pocket for filing fees a couple of times,” Robison restated that he never was paid by this council or other non-profits to which he gave legal advice.
Debi Wagner’s Complaint
The B-Town Blog was unable to reach Wagner by phone Friday afternoon, but following the April 16 city council meeting – where she was in the audience when Edgar asked his question about recusal – she submitted a letter to the blog: Concerns About Jerry Robison, Mike Martin and Area Y Annexation.
In her remarks, Wagner alleged that “Burien City Council members that appointed Jerry Robison knew that he had a conflict of interest on the issue of the annexation of Area Y” – the remaining North Highline unincorporated area including White Center.
Robison was picked to replace Kathy Keene, who retired effective Dec. 31, 2010. He won election to a full term on the city council last November, defeating Wagner for that position.
“Mr. Robison has been the attorney for the NHUAC and the head organizer for the White Center Jubilee Days,” Wagner continued. “This could hardly have been missed as it is plastered all over Mr. Robison’s law firm windows.”
But, countered Robison, “if I own a business and vote for a contract that I benefit from financially, that is a conflict of interest.” Providing pro bono legal advice for an organization for which he isn’t paid isn’t a conflict, he emphasized.
A 2005 Court of Appeals decision – which held there was no conflict of interest with Pete’s Towing, owned by then-Des Moines City Councilman Gary Petersen, providing towing services for the City of Des Moines while he served on the city council – appears to back Robison.
“It would be an oddity for an elected official automatically to be placed in violation of the ethics code merely by being sworn into office,” that decision said. “Soon it would be difficult to find capable people willing to run for public office, particularly in small towns where virtually every proprietor in the village may at least occasionally do business with the town.”
[Note: This case – Citizens for Des Moines v. Gary W. Petersen – will be looked at in Part II.]?
North Highline Unincorporated Area Council comments
NHUAC President Barbara Dobkin said there is a unique oddity in claims that Robison has a conflict of interest in voting for North Highline annexation.
“If he was providing legal services to us on a contract and we were paying him a retainer, and North Highline voters approve annexation, then there would no longer be an unincorporated area council and he would no longer get a retainer. That would not benefit him in any way.”
But, Dobkin declared, Jerry was one of the founding members of the council. When we made changes to our by-laws we called him for advice. He’s a friend and he knows the council and who else better to call?”
“That does not in itself create an attorney-client relationship nor does that make him our attorney of record. He’s a friend of the council who offered to give us some advice … the council has no contract with him, and has never paid him a retainer or a fee for service.”
NHUAC member Liz Giba added, “We never paid him a penny.” This can be verified, she said, since the council must reimburse financial claims by submitting vouchers to King County, which then pays these claims.
And his listing on a meeting agenda “is not a regular circumstance,” Giba said. “In fact, it’s unusual to see him there.”
Dobkin said it is “unfortunate” that Robison is referred to as the NHUAC attorney since he has never worked in that capacity for the council “and we have never had an attorney … we’ve never had a budget for attorney services.”
While they have never had a contract with Robison, Giba said because of their long-standing friendship with him and his support of the council, “we use the term loosely that Jerry is the NHUAC attorney.”
But, Dobkin stated again, “all he has done is infrequently provide advice on organizational issues only. Never on legal issues. And he has never been compensated [by NHUAC]. There is nothing unusual about this.”