The Kent City Council voted unanimously about every issue over the past two years until it came to picking a new council president because of an alleged conflict of interest between Mayor Dana Ralph and Councilmember Toni Troutner.
The council in a contentious 4-2 vote on Tuesday night chose Troutner to be the council president for the next two years. The council had voted unanimously on every issue since Ralph became mayor two years ago, whether it was the city budget or how to spend streamlined sales tax revenue.
But when outgoing Council President Bill Boyce nominated Troutner to replace him, Councilmember Satwinder Kaur revealed her thoughts about Troutner in the position.
“I have had long conversations with community leaders and residents of Kent and we want the executive body and the legislative body to be separate and agree there should be a separation of power between the city council and the mayor’s office,” Kaur said.
“But there is a conflict of interest in our constituents’ minds as to (Troutner’s) personal relationship with the mayor as employer and employee,” Kaur said. “We are elected to serve the people of Kent and do not serve each other. I do believe strongly in this and so that is why I voted no.”
Kaur explained Wednesday in an email to the Kent Reporter that Troutner works for Ralph’s small company Advance Billing Systems, a medical billing service.
“A conflict of interest is a situation in which an individual has competing interests,” Kaur said in the email. “As a result their secondary interest may undermine or influence their primary responsibility.”
The council president works closely with the mayor to set agendas and bring issues forward for a vote. The mayor does not vote on issues at council meetings. The council president also serves as the spokesperson for the council.
“Having the mayor’s influence on the agenda could undermine the council’s independence,” Kaur said.
Boyce told the council prior to the vote that he decided against two more years in the position after four years on the job. Most council presidents in Kent have served two years.
Councilmember Brenda Fincher also voted against Troutner as president. Fincher said she preferred Boyce stay as the leader. Les Thomas, Boyce, newly elected Zandria Michaud and Troutner herself voted in favor of Troutner. Councilmember Marli Larimer had an excused absence because of a out-of-state business trip, but she sent an email in support of Troutner, although her vote didn’t count because of her absence.
Troutner, completing her second year of a four-year term, responded at the meeting to the vote.
“I did reach out to all of our council members during this process and I asked for support and I want to thank you for giving me that,” Troutner said. “I know a couple of you did have some reservations. I do promise to be transparent and open with each and every one of you. We have done some great things in the past couple of years and we are a great team and will continue to do good things.”
Troutner didn’t address Kaur’s complaint at the meeting about the employer-employee potential conflict.
But Troutner emailed a statement to the Kent Reporter in response to Kaur’s negative vote.
“There is no conflict of interest,” Troutner said in the email. “The mayor and the council president serve in two different branches of government, with different roles and responsibilities and both are independently elected by the voters of Kent. I was selected and supported by five of my council colleagues to serve as their council president.”
Troutner said she works for Ralph’s company.
“I do work, part time, for a company owned by the mayor,” Troutner said. “However, the mayor does not manage the company and has not been actively involved in the operations since she took office. I have always committed to ensuring my personal work stays personal and does not interfere with my council work, as have my other council colleagues who maintain employment outside of our part-time city council responsibilities.”
Kaur said she had a conversation with Troutner on Monday.
“I believe when we talk together as a team and our conversation yesterday that you will not hold this vote against me, now that you are elected and that you will be completely transparent to the residents of Kent and to us, and hopefully you will not work to just allowing votes but to have conversation on issues together,” Kaur said.
Boyce wrapped up the conversation with his support of Troutner, who starts the new position Jan. 1.
“I look at us as one team,” Boyce said. “As council president, I can get nothing done without you guys supporting me. Councilmember Troutner, she’s not going to get anything done either without our support of her. If she was the mayor’s daughter, it doesn’t matter, nothing’s going to get done without all of us working as a team.
“We all have our own personal feelings and thoughts and I respect that, but at the end of the day we still operate as a team and I have the utmost confidence in Councilmember Troutner. She’s going to reach out and lean in and she’s going to gather the facts and data and make sure we are all on the same page. I look forward to working with you and supporting you.
“We have a lot of work to do in this city. We are only as strong as our weakest link and I look forward to the team working together like we have done in the past and rally behind Councilmember Troutner to make sure she is successful and we are successful.”