FERNDALE, Wash. — During the last Ferndale City Council’s regular meeting, a citizen and former Ferndale mayor stepped forward during the public comment portion of the agenda and alleged several ethics violations by Mayor Jon Mutchler. No action by city staff or council followed those comments with no process in place for acting on such citizen complaints.
In the meantime, Councilmember and former candidate for mayor Keith Olson
reportedly filed 2 ethics complaints against Mutchler with the city.
While the specifics of Olson’s filing have yet to be made public, Olson’s complaints accuse Mutchler of
- violating RCW 42.17A.555 by displaying a campaign sign on his car while parked in the City Hall parking lot.
- violating the Ferndale City Council Rules of Procedure & Ethics Handbook section on “Undue Influence” by his conduct in a meeting between a family member accused of a crime, the accuser and the accuser’s pastor and by misleading Ferndale Police personnel into believing he had retained Ferndale City Municipal Court Judge Mark Kaiman to represent him.
The Finance & Administration Council Committee, which met Wednesday, August 28th, discussed how to investigate the allegations.
City Attorney Dannon Traxler told the committee the process for handling such complaints is for the complaints to go to the city administrator for review and then to her for investigation. If she found a violation, it would then go to a 3-person ad hoc council committee to determine the punishment. But, in this case, there is a conflict of interest in having her investigate allegations against the mayor since he has the ability to hire and fire her.
Traxler said she contacted Washington Cities Insurance Authority who referred her to an outside attorney to conduct the investigation. She reported the cost estimate provided by that attorney was between $8,000 and $12,000.
Councilmember Gary Jensen asked, “What is our end goal to spending $10,000 of not our money? At the end of this ethics complaint, what is going to happen?” Councilmember Olson responded, “A letter of admonishment and that would be it.”
Traxler clarified, “We are confined to what we can do to punish an elected official. Admonishment, censor and removal from committee but that wouldn’t even apply to the mayor. Our hands are tied as to what we can do. But there is a process that we are required to follow when a complaint has been filed.”
Mutchler said, “I have not ever responded to allegations which are completely false, completely,” and he welcomed an investigation but was disappointed at the cost to the city. He suggested to the councilmembers they could vote to suspend their rules to avoid the cost.
Traxler pointed out the primary stumbling block is the step in the process that requires an investigation prior to creating the ad hoc council committee. Council could suspend the rule requiring the investigation and jump to creating the ad hoc council committee and assigning them the responsibility to investigate. But, she cautioned, “That would require council interviewing elected officials and staff and I would see that as problematic given the relationships between everyone here at the city.”
City Administrator Jori Burnett said the city would work to find lower cost options but even in the absence of finding any would still need to enter into an agreement with an outside investigator to preserve the process.
This story was updated at August 30th at 2:30pm with information about the ethics violation complaints filed by Councilmember Olson as provided by Olson.