Editorial: Criminals have it easy at City Hall

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Government employees have a target on their backs as the country wades slowly out of recession. Secure public sector jobs and guaranteed pensions anger people struggling to make living locally and nationally. A lot of that anger is unjustified; most public employees are everyday Americans just trying to make a living too.

But in Alexandria, where criminals have infested City Hall, anger is warranted — and change is necessary.

The City of Alexandria saw eight of its employees arrested for an array of malfeasance in 2011. Taxpayers paid the salaries of eight people — a teacher obsessed with child pornography, a drunk-driving police officer and embezzlers, to name a few — who broke the law and abused their trust.

With a local unemployment rate of 4.5 percent and a national rate of 8.5 percent, plenty of law-abiding people would love to work for Alexandria taxpayers. And the issue is not only moral, but monetary. Replacing disgraced employees costs staff time and residents greenbacks. No one wins.

But City Manager Rashad Young has a chance to declare victory. He has inherited this serious, threatening problem, and fixing it could be part of his local legacy — if he takes action.

Eight employees being arrested in one year points to two problems: a reputation for leniency (Alexandria City Hall is the place to go if delinquency is your desire) and a crisis in the hiring department (the vetting process is broken). One former employee, Timothy Wanamaker, was under investigation for stealing $30,000 from the Buffalo, N.Y. government while working at City Hall. Taxpayers paid for a consultant to do a background check on Mr. Wanamaker that turned up clean.

It took the Times a few hours and a few phone calls to prove his reputation was questionable at the time of his hire in Alexandria.

Mr. Young must institute new hiring practices with more checks and balances. He was brought here at a salary of $245,000 to make the local government more efficient. If he does not take proactive measures, the embarrassing, wasteful and distracting trend will only worsen.

The answer is not more internal protections against embezzlement (new safeguards have already been instituted). The answer is to nip the problem in the nascent stages of the hiring process. To change culture at City Hall, Mr. Young has an advantage: he’s new. He must put his foot down as an authoritative executive who will not accept criminals on his team.