Ferndale council can bar members from sensitive legal briefings


FERNDALE - In a 6-1 vote, the City Council gave itself the authority to force a council member to leave a meeting if the member has a conflict of interest, or appears to have a conflict.

The only dissenting vote on Monday, June 16, came from council member Carol Bersch. City staff and council members have said she appeared to have a conflict of interest in a legal dispute between the city and resident Art Rojsza. Bersch refused to leave a closed-door briefing on the dispute in April, and city attorney Dannon Traxler decided not to give the briefing.

Bersch and her husband, Michael, are friends of Rojsza. Michael Bersch, who is educated in law, helped Rojsza in a past sexual-harassment case against him.

Council members and city staff said they wanted the confidence to discuss sensitive legal strategy without fear it would be leaked to the city's legal opponents.

"Knowledge of strategy is damaging if it's disclosed," city Administrator Greg Young said. "If you don't know something, you can't disclose it."

Officials told Bersch the ordinance was not an indictment of her integrity but rather sought to address how her husband's relationship with Rojsza - or how any council member's relationships - could be perceived as a conflict.

"Even a perception of a conflict of interest harms the public trust," city Clerk Sam Taylor said.

Bersch strenuously opposed the ordinance.

"I really question whether it's legal," Bersch said. Later, she took another swipe at what one council member referred to as a tool for taking action against council members who were a perceived threat to council secrecy.

"When you place this ordinance in the new toolbox that you're creating, when this happens again, and it will come up, and it may not be me this time ... get your hammer and nails out because it's going to be your cross to bear," Bersch said.

Perry Eskridge, government affairs director for the Whatcom County Association of Realtors, said at the meeting that he had vast experience with conflict of interest issues, and this ordinance was a bad idea.

"I have dealt with this hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of times," Eskridge said. Removing a council member from a discussion was like disenfranchising voters, he said, by taking away their elected representative.

"And boy, you better have a ... good reason for doing something like that," Eskridge said.

Ferndale resident Grace Cisneros spoke against the ordinance, saying it was vindictive and unworkable in a city as small as Ferndale.

"How can there not be a conflict of interest whenever you walk down the street, with anybody here?" she said.

Reach RALPH SCHWARTZ at ralph.schwartz@bellinghamherald.com or call 715-2298.

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