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Local Codes of Ethics

This page provides examples of ethics codes that have been adopted by cities, counties, and special purpose districts in Washington State, highlighting common ethics and conflict of interest concerns.

Questions? Comments? If you have suggestions for how we can improve this webpage, please contact the page editor. If you have questions about this topic or other local government issues, Ask MRSC!


Overview

While state law prohibits municipal officers from engaging in certain conflicts of interest and unethical behavior (see our page on Ethics and Conflicts of Interest), some local governments adopt their own ethics codes that include additional restrictions. These policies cannot conflict with state law, but they can supplement it. There are several good reasons to adopt a local ethics code:

  • It allows the municipality to further explain what is covered by state law;
  • It can cover employees as well as officers; and
  • It can address ethical issues not covered by state law.

Sometimes these ethics codes are adopted as part of an employee handbook or policy, but often they are codified. Below are some of the most common topics addressed by local ethics codes as well as examples of different policy approaches for each. It is up to each jurisdiction to determine what topics—if any—should be addressed in its ethics code.


Nepotism

Nepotism provisions aim to keep family patronage out of local government. Examples of local nepotism code provisions are listed below. For more information, see our page on Nepotism.


Accepting Gifts

RCW 42.23.070(2) prohibits municipal officers from receiving gifts from a source other than their employer for a matter connected with or related to their public service. Several local government entities have chosen to go into more detail on the nuances of gifting. The examples below provide specific discussion on where to draw the line on gifts to public employees or officers.


Prohibited Contract Interests

RCW 42.23.030 generally prohibits a municipal officer from directly or indirectly receiving a financial benefit from a public contract. For more information, see our page on Ethics and Conflicts of Interest.

But deciding where to draw the line on interests in a public contract can be tough, so many local governments have supplemented state law with their own codes of ethics. Below are some examples.


Misuse of Public Resources or Property

Misuse of public resources or property by employees or officers of a local government could implicate several provisions of state law, such as RCW 42.20.090 or the Washington State Constitution’s prohibition on gifts of public funds. Some local governments have chosen to provide further detail on this subject in their local ethics code.


Misuse of Public Position

RCW 42.23.070 prohibits misuse of a municipal officer’s position to gain special privileges or exemptions for themselves or others. The codes below address improper influence or leveraging of a government position for personal gain.


Representation of Third Parties

Many local governments have limited their officers and employees from representing a private person in proceeding in which the local government is a party due to the conflicts of interest such behavior could raise. Below are some examples of codes that go into detail on this ethics issue.


Disclosure of Confidential Information

RCW 42.23.070(4) prohibits municipal officers from disclosing confidential information gained by reason of their position, but doesn’t specify what information should be considered “confidential.” The code provisions listed below try to solve this issue by providing a clearer definition of what information is considered confidential.


Incompatible Offices

The Doctrine of Incompatible offices limits an individual from simultaneously holding two “public offices” that are incompatible with one another. While state statute is largely silent on this issue, courts and the Attorney General’s Office have weighed in on a number of situations. For more information, see our page on Incompatible Offices.

However, some local codes specifically address the extent to which officers or employees can simultaneously hold two or more public offices.


Private Employment or Outside Employment

When local government employees perform outside work, some conflict of interest questions may arise. Some local governments have addressed this issue by adopting policies limiting private employment for public employees, as well as laying out procedures for disclosure of outside employment or interests.

  • Cross Valley Water District Code Sec. 3.50.050(5) and (6) - Conflict of interest if official or employee engages in employment or ownership of an entity that does business with the district, unless interest is disclosed or employment is not incompatible with official district duties.
  • King County Code Sec. 3.04.030(B)(6)–(10) - Extensive discussion of the extent to which county employees may engage in private or outside employment while working for the county.
  • Renton Municipal Code Sec. 1-6-6 - Good, basic model.
  • Vancouver Employee Ethics Policies Sec. 502 (2008) - Allows employees to engage in paid outside employment, consulting work, or self-employment only if the work does not compete with or create a conflict of interest with the employee’s duties to the city. The policy then defines what it means to “compete” or create a “conflict of interest” with city employment.

Whistleblower Protection

Whistleblower protection policies assure government employees reporting ethics violations that the process will be handled equitably and there will not be repercussions. Chapter 42.41 RCW provides protection for whistleblowers, but some local governments have supplemented state law with more specific guidelines and definitions. For more information, see our page on Whistleblowing.


Employment/Conduct after Leaving Office

Some local governments have adopted code provisions that address potential conflicts of interest related to public employees’ conduct after leaving public employment.

  • Clallam County Code Sec. 3.01.030(7) - Standard policy example with moderate level of detail. Includes a provision allowing the Board of Commissioners, when requested, to make an exception if there is no real conflict.
  • Edmonds Municipal Code Sec. 3.70.010 - Detailed section provides that a former official, officer, or employee generally may not receive compensation from an employer within a period of one year after leaving city employment if that employer has a contract with the city worth more than $10,000, and the former official, officer, or employee helped negotiate or administer the contract while employed by the city.
  • Grant County PUD Code of Ethics Policy 3 – Bars employment that may require disclosure of confidential information.
  • King County Code Sec. 3.04.035 - Very detailed provisions limiting the ability of former employees and former members of county boards, commissions, and committees from engaging in certain activities within one year of terminating service to the county.
  • Tacoma Municipal Code Sec. 1.46.030(N)(3) - Includes a duty to inform the city manager when a current city officer is contracting with a former city officer or employee.

Appearance of Fairness

Chapter 42.36 RCW discusses the application and limitations of the Appearance of Fairness Doctrine, a rule extending due process protections to quasi-judicial decisions. For more information, see our page on the Appearance of Fairness Doctrine.

Local governments that wish to prioritize procedural fairness may supplement state law through their local ethics code.


Disclosure of Personal Investment Interests

In order to ensure transparency and equity, several local governments have policies requiring the regular disclosure of investments and real property interests of its officers. Here are some examples of such policies.

  • Kirkland Municipal Code Sec. 3.14.040 - Requires that all city officials file an annual disclosure of investments, real property, income, and creditors.
  • Lakehaven Water & Sewer District Code of Ethical Standards Sec. 5 - Requires disclosure of financial interests that might create a conflict, as well as a duty to report other members’ conflicting interests.
  • Renton Municipal Code Sec. 1-6-7 - Requires every elected city official with a financial, private, or personal interest in any ordinance, resolution, contract, proceeding, or other action pending before the city council to disclose such interest.
  • Richland Municipal Code Sec. 2.26.060 - Requires councilmembers with a financial, private, or personal interest in action pending before the city council to disclose the nature and extent of the interest. However, disclosure is not required if the councilmember disqualifies themselves from participating in any discussion and vote on the matter under consideration.

Campaigning Activities

RCW 42.17A.555 sets the rules for use of public facilities during campaigns, but local governments can supplement state law regarding campaigning activities in order to avoid any conflicts of interest or inequality in campaigns.

  • Grant County Employee Handbook Sec. 11.17 - Prohibits county employees that meet with or may be observed by the public from wearing political buttons or badges while performing their regular duties for the county. The policy also prohibits county employees from campaigning while on county time, in a county uniform, or while representing the county in any manner.
  • Lynnwood Municipal Code Sec. 2.94.060 - Concise example.
  • Pierce County Code Sec. 3.12.030(R) - Prohibits county officials and employees from using or authorizing the use of “facilities of the county” or resources to assist a political campaign. The code also provides a nonexclusive list of what constitutes “facilities of the county.”
  • Port of Seattle Employee Code of Conduct CC-13 - Prohibits use of district facilities for campaign activities, also prohibits communications that might be construed as an official endorsement by the district.

Beneficial/Private Interest in Legislation

RCW 42.23.030 prohibits any private or beneficial interest in contracts, but many local governments have taken this a step further to prohibit employees or officers from having a personal interest in legislation. Below are some examples of code provisions that discuss this ethics issue.

  • Cross Valley Water District Code Sec. 3.50.050(9) - Commissioners with a financial or private interest in legislation or other matters before the board must disclose the interest, even if they recuse themselves. Employees or other officials with a private interest must disclose the interest if they participate in the discussion or give an official opinion.
  • SeaTac Municipal Code Sec. 2.90.030(A)(6) - Prohibits elected officials from having a financial interest in any legislation coming before the council unless such interest is a remote interest.

Enforcement

When drafting a code of ethics, local governments should include procedures for enforcement of the code so that expectations are clear for public officers and employees. Here are some examples of how local governments have chosen to enforce their ethics codes.

Examples of Local Codes of Ethics

Below are some sample codes of ethics from a variety of cities, counties, and special purpose districts, including all of the examples cited earlier on this page.

Cities/Towns under 10,000 Population

Cities of 10,000 to 50,000 Population

Cities over 50,000 Population

Counties

Special Purpose Districts


Recommended Resources


Last Modified: June 21, 2017