Saltzman's Sin

T.A. Barnhart

Dan Saltzman did not violate any laws. Let’s be clear about that from the beginning. Let’s also be clear about this:

That’s not good enough.

Saltzman did not direct money to a friend; he did not give an advantage to an organization because of a personal relationship; Saltzman’s violation was to decide that the public did not need to know about his personal relationship, that it was none of their business. He displayed poor judgment and then, when called on it, tried to dismiss public concerns as no one else’s business.

Does that sound familiar?

With an engineering degree from MIT, a stint on Ron Wyden’s staff, five years as a Multnomah County Commissioner and now, eleven years into his service on the Portland City Council, with a first-hand view of Sam Adams’ woes stemming from a failure to honestly disclose a personal relationship — Saltzman makes the decision to not disclose his own relationship.

He’s claiming he was shy; a more accurate term would be “arrogant” — unless he wants to opt for “dumb”. Call it what you will, Saltzman should have disclosed a personal relationship. That is standard procedure for persons in elected office, and the decision to withhold information is not one that is open to an elected official. The right to be shy in public is lost when you submit your name to the public and ask for their vote, their trust.

What the violation is not.

This is not about money. This is not about breaking any law. There was no active public deception practiced as was the case when Adams lied when questioned about his relationship with Beau Breedlove. This is about right-and-wrong outside the narrow scope of the law.

Saltzman’s failure was not legal; it was ethical. The City’s Code of Ethics states clearly:

If an individual official’s financial or personal interests will be specifically affected by a decision, the official is to withdraw from participating in the decision.

In brief: CARES NW, an organization doing excellent work with children throughout Oregon, applied for a $1.2 million grant from the Children’s Levy. Staff vetted the application, gave it a high rating, and recommended granting $500,000. The allocation committee, which Saltzman chairs and included then-Multnomah County Chair Ted Wheeler, approved $600,000 — that amount being forwarded by Saltzman.

What was not disclosed at that or any other meeting was the personal relationship that is the core of the ethics charge: Saltzman’s girlfriend is Liz Burns, a fundraiser for CARES NW. Burns played no role in this grant, apart from an early appeal to the Levy to broaden their program definitions so that CARES NW would be eligible to apply for a grant (all credit for the facts in this story goes to Matt Davis of the Portland Mercury). Burns’ role at CARES NW is to raise funds from private interests, not from government entities like the Levy. The entire committee supported the application and the granting of $600,000; the broad support for the organization and grant indicate this is money well spent and a good use of Levy funds.

And it’s not the point.

It’s not about the money.

Ethics violations, as defined by state law, involve “pecuniary” benefit or detriment. Neither the Attorney General nor the Oregon Government Ethics Commission (OGEC) will prosecute an ethics charge unless an official, family member or business associate is alleged to have received monetary advantage (or disadvantage) because of the official’s actions. If money is not involved, there is no violation of ethics under the law. The City Code of Ethics follows this track by stating that only those elements of the Code covered by state laws will be enforced; all other provisions of the code are “only advisory”.

The ethics complaint filed by City Council candidate Rudy Soto will be looked at but, unless new evidence comes to light that Burns received pecuniary benefit, or that CARES NW was awarded the grant because of Saltzman and Burns’ relationship, there will be nothing to prosecute. I spoke with Ron Bersin, Executive Director of OGEC, and he stated that while any citizen could file a complaint — and OGEC receives over 200 a year — unless a state law or local administrative rule is violated, there is no action for the Commission to take. And at this point, no evidence exists that this happened in this case.

And that’s so not the point.

There is no factual evidence that Burns and Saltzman ever spoke of the application, ever discussed what the committee looked for in a good application, what factors were likely to secure the maximum possible funding, etc. If they did discuss the application in any way, we’ll not know unless one of them states so. Unfortunately, the assumption that they did is one that many people will make; I confess to that myself. To what extent and what affect? I don’t know, of course. I’m confident that the CARES NW staffers responsible for the application are professionals capable of securing funding without resorting to unethical tactics. Under the law, the working assumption is not suspicion but innocence, and no evidence exists to suggest otherwise. For that reason, City Attorney Linly Rees was able to state that Saltzman’s actions did not constitute a conflict of interest.

How strongly can I state this? That is not the point.

Ethics: empty words or commitment to service?

Ethics, as the City Code declares, are about service to the public: trust, objectivity, accountability and leadership. Those are the four categories of ethics the Code covers. In the “Explanatory Notes” section (required by the Code), the Auditor writes:

Just because an action is legal does not necessarily mean it is right or good. Similarly, not every action that is wrong needs to be punished under the law. The role of ethics is particularly to question those actions which are neither prohibited nor required by law.

Commissioner Saltzman apparently has never found the time in his eleven-plus years on the Council to read that paragraph. He did nothing illegal, broke no law — and yet he violated the Code of Ethics. His wrong-doing does not rise to the level of requiring legal action — the City Attorney’s office is correct on that matter — but it was still a violation of the Code of Ethics.

The Code calls upon City officials to “treat their office as a public trust”, not as a privilege. Those who stand forward as leaders do not get to play by the same rules as everyone else; they are held to a much higher, much stricter standard. “Objectivity” for an elected official must be greater than for private citizens: as the Code says, even the “appearance” of bias or personal favoritism is too much and must be avoided.

Are you a leader or not?

Dan Saltzman says he was too shy to comply with the Code. Seriously.

"In retrospect, maybe I should have done that," Saltzman said Tuesday of disclosing the relationship with Liz Burns. But he's a "shy guy," he said, and revealing a relationship with someone "who is not affected by this grant whatsoever didn't seem appropriate. There was no breach."

Personality traits are not an excuse; being hot-blooded does not let one person hit another, and being shy doesn’t allow a City Commissioner to decline to follow the Code of Ethics. Here’s all he needed to say:

For purposes of full disclosure, I have a personal relationship with Liz Burns, a member of the CARES NW staff. Ms Burns is not involved in this grant, she receives no advantage from this grant, and we have not discussed this matter at any time.

That’s it. Two sentences, perhaps a bit uncomfortable to speak, but not nearly so much as “I screwed up on Officer Ronald Frashour”. If any member of the allocation committee or the public had further questions, the person on CARES NW staff responsible for the grant allocation could have verified Saltzman’s statement — and that would have been the end of the matter. Such disclosures are a common matter in government, especially in a small state like Oregon. I spoke with Ramona Kennedy, Chief Clerk of the House of Representatives, about how disclosure is handled there. She said the practice is to disclose any potential conflict, however tenuous.

That Portland City Council members are allowed to define “potential” to their own preference or advantage is a privilege I think few voters would support.

A deal-breaker?

The bottom line is: does Saltzman’s violation of the City’s Code of Ethics rise to the level of disqualifying him from office? Has he violated the public’s trust sufficiently that voters should seek another candidate as a result? Just how bad is this violation?

Taken alone, this is not that big a deal. There’s been no cover-up, no lying to obfuscate the facts, just a lot of spin, and there’s nothing illegal about spin. As a stand-alone matter, this failure to disclose could be covered with an apology and a commitment to take far more seriously the nature of “potential” in the future. The problem, of course, is that this incident does not stand alone.

Dan Saltzman has a number of items on his record that already call his judgment into question. His support of the Civic Stadium deal for Merritt Paulson, his support of the bioswales-for-bikes proposal, his own out-of-left-field attempt to transfer cable fees to the Bike Plan without consulting his colleagues on the Council, and, most damaging, his handling of the Police Bureau already make it likely that he will be forced into a general election run-off — if he even avoids a May 18th defeat. This ethics violation is simply one more big strike against Saltzman.

What this incident underscores is the poor quality of the Commissioner’s judgment and his willingness to set his own preferences above the need to be transparent before the public. Faced with a difficult choice — to disclose a relationship or keep it private — he choose what was most comfortable for him. He decided, on his own, to hide a potential conflict of interest because he just didn’t feel anyone needed to know whom he dated. After 16 years in elected office, Dan Saltzman still does not understand that that is not the kind of information he gets to withhold simply because he would prefer to. The failure in judgment looms so large because the same person is responsible for making critical decisions regarding the Police Bureau.

And if Dan Saltzman can’t even understand that a personal relationship is required to be disclosed under the circumstances in question, how can he possibly make the right decisions regarding a Police Bureau that has gunned down far too many of our citizens in recent years?

  • (Show?)

    i want to thank Rebecca Robinson, formerly of the Portland Sentinel and a colleague at the Oregon News Incubator for invaluable editorial assistance.

    i also want to make clear: i support Jesse Cornett for City Council, but my thoughts on this matter would be the same regardless of an election.

  • (Show?)

    With an engineering degree from MIT, a stint on Ron Wyden’s staff, five years as a Multnomah County Commissioner and now, eleven years into his service on the Portland City Council, - Saltzman is a career politician with no real world understanding.

    His misteps, miscues and misunderstandings are all borne out of his lack of hubris and general lack of knowledge about how the rest of the world operates.

    I would suggest he be granted the opportunity to learn about the real world.

  • (Show?)

    well, Mark, if you're cool with an elected official disregarding the City Code of Ethics, then don't complain when they do so in a way you object to.

    • (Show?)

      I'm not cool with it--so thankfully the fact that Saltzman quite evidently didn't disregard it, everything's copacetic. Did you have an answer to what part of the code he actually violated, or are you admitting this is just oppositional pique stemming from support for a candidate likely to be done with his candidacy next week?

  • (Show?)

    You make an excellent case for 1/2 the argument. The other half, for my money, is why we should think a particular candidate would be different. One could easily conclude that Saltzman's sin was enabled by seeing that holding the phalanx formation at City Hall works, bottom line. Pols are opportunists. Why will anyone else act differently?

    I think that's a problem with the thesis. If you say "sin", then we can talk only of why he should suffer punishment. In reality, it's not about that. It's about the choice we are making. Personally, I would have couched this in an endorsement for a particular candidate. A "Mary Volm won't fail you the way Saltzman has" kind of thing. I'm sure you're supporting a candidate. Unless you're a preacher, isn't talking about his "sin" as if it were an arbitrary point, also failing to disclose a relationship and your motivation?

  • (Show?)
    "Dan Saltzman says he was too shy to comply with the Code."

    Yet you yourself acknowledge he didn't actually violate the city's code of ethics.

  • (Show?)

    So Saltzman made the mistake of not recusing himself from a unanimous vote to give more money to an organization with an impeccable record of aiding victims of child abuse. Do I have that right?

  • (Show?)

    no, Mitch, i said he broke no laws. he absolutely violated the Code of Ethics.

    • (Show?)

      by doing...what? Be specific with regards to the text of the code, and how his actions discretely violated them. Thank you.

connect with blueoregon