PORT ANGELES — City lawmakers will restructure the Public Safety Advisory Board to foster more diversity on the all-white panel.
Six Port Angeles City Council members reached consensus Tuesday on a proposal to add two tribal representatives and one person who has experienced homelessness or a chemical use disorder — or worked with someone who has — to the volunteer board that makes recommendations on the provision of police and fire services.
Eleven of 18 public speakers who testified or left voicemails that were played in a virtual meeting Tuesday said they supported the proposal, which stemmed from an online petition calling for more diversity on the Public Safety Advisory Board.
“While our advocacy helped inspire those changes, all the (proposed) code updates were either recommended by or supported by city staff, including the police chief, who supports making the board more representative of our community,” said Carolyn Wilcox of Port Angeles, who organized the petition.
“As far as I can see, everyone at the city wants an accountable and transparent government that promotes public health and safety.”
The proposed ordinance will be considered by the council after a second reading Sept. 15.
It does not include a recommendation from the petition to give the 12-member Public Safety Advisory Board powers to investigate complaints against city police or other staff.
The advisory board was created in 1992 as a police reform during the uprising that followed the acquittal of the Los Angeles police officers who beat Rodney King, Wilcox said in a voicemail.
City Police Chief Brian Smith said the board was created in 1992 when the department was first accredited by the Washington Association of Sheriffs and Police Chiefs.
“The evidence available to me is that is it was created specifically because of WASPC accreditation,” Smith said in a later interview.
The current proposal comes in the “aftermath of the police officer murder of George Floyd” in Minneapolis on May 25, Wilcox said.
City Council members agreed to consult with the Lower Elwha Klallam Tribal Council on the appointment of two tribal representatives.
Council member Lindsey Schromen-Wawrin recused himself from the discussion because he is married to Wilcox.
“Neither of us have any personal gain or other benefit from advocating for Public Safety Advisory Board policy reform,” Wilcox said.
City Attorney Bill Bloor provided to the council three options to add tribal representatives to the Public Safety Advisory Board while complying with non-discrimination laws.
“I think it is good to designate two board seats for tribal members, but the law still is that the city is prohibited — both by federal law and by state law — from establishing a selection criteria on the basis or race, ethnicity, gender and those other protected classes,” Bloor said.
Bloor’s three options were:
• Ask the Lower Elwha Klallam Tribe to make the selections.
• Consult with the tribe on tribal member appointments.
• Designate no seats for tribal members but solicit interest from the Lower Elwha Klallam tribe.
The council selected the second option after a lengthy discussion Tuesday.
LaTrisha Suggs, who became the first tribal member to serve on the Port Angeles City Council when she was appointed in December 2019, said the first option could create “barriers” for tribal members.
“I’m just afraid that we would turn applicants away that would not be interested in going through that process,” Suggs said.
Suggs made a motion at the Aug. 4 council meeting to add a second tribal representative to the public safety board.
Mayor Kate Dexter said the second alternative was a “good middle ground.”
“I really hope that this encourages more diverse applicants, specifically around race,” Council member Navarra Carr said.
City Manager Nathan West said the current proposal should not impugn the good work of the seated Public Safety Advisory Board, which vetted successful public safety programs like REdisCOVERY and Community Paramedicine.
“We do not want to do anything to disrespect the numerous hours of volunteer work and the great effort that we have seen from our standing Public Safety Advisory Board members,” West said.
“They have put forward a great deal of recommendations to support some very successful programs in this community, and we’re extremely appreciative of each of those members.”
Patty Pastore, who has volunteered to clean up city parks with Helping Hands, took umbrage with an allegation that Wilcox and others had made about vigilantism on the Public Safety Advisory Board.
Pastore alleged that Wilcox filed a false police report claiming that Helping Hands had stolen debris from an abandoned homeless camp.
“This was enough to almost make me lose hope for the Port Angeles I’ve known and loved all these years,” Pastore said during a public comment period Tuesday.
Pastore said Schromen-Wawrin should recuse himself from actions brought forward by his wife.
Later in the meeting, which adjourned at 10:09 p.m., Schromen-Wawrin explained his reasons for recusal.
“I wanted to recuse in the interest of public perception of fairness, that the council’s deliberations over that proposed ordinance were not unduly influenced,” Schromen-Wawrin said.
“I don’t think, though, that there is merit to the argument of a conflict of interest or ethics violation there.”
Schromen-Wawrin said allegations of conflicts of interest are “often used as weapons to prevent elected officials from doing our jobs rather than as a means to ensure fair play in the policy-making process.”
“Recusing ourselves unnecessarily can set a dangerous precedent,” Schromen-Wawrin said in his council report, before citing statistics on racial disparities in the criminal justice system.
“I did want to emphasize that I did recuse in the spirit of public dialogue and as a sign that I was listening to the concerns people have raised here, regardless of the merits of those concerns.”
Reporter Rob Ollikainen can be reached at [email protected].