EDITORIAL: Honest government requires full disclosures

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Most politicians take office promising high standards for transparent and ethical behavior. Unfortunately, when this promise becomes politically or personally inconvenient, as it inevitably does, the standard often isn’t met.

President Barack Obama’s White House website pledges: “My administration is committed to creating an unprecedented level of openness in government. We will work together to ensure the public trust and establish a system of transparency…” But his many critics would argue the administration forgets this promise when politically expedient.

Former Gov. Bob McDonnell, while campaigning, criticized his predecessor, Tim Kaine, for a lack of transparency, adding, “The governor is Virginia’s chief executive and represents the commonwealth at all times.” McDonnell and his wife, Maureen, ultimately did not represent the commonwealth very well, as they face federal corruption charges. Even if the courts eventually conclude the McDonnells did nothing illegal under Virginia law, their conduct was clearly unethical.

Ethical and transparent behavior also matters at the local level. It’s why we hold public hearings about every major decision that’s made in Alexandria — so all viewpoints get airtime and deals aren’t cut in back rooms without resident input.

Mayor Bill Euille made a small but important stand for transparency at Saturday’s city council meeting. Ahead of discussions on whether to approve an awning requested by the Landini Brothers Restaurant, Euille publicly disclosed that he had received a campaign donation from an investor in the restaurant.

We would have liked to see Euille go even further by recusing himself from the subsequent vote — he didn’t and the awning was unanimously approved 7-0 — but nonetheless commend the mayor for his forthrightness.

Euille’s disclosure of the financial contribution, the first we can recall in recent years, begs several questions. First, how often do our local elected officials vote on matters where there’s at least a potential conflict of interest? Shouldn’t we always expect them to disclose prior campaign contributions from people involved in matters before council? Shouldn’t we require them to recuse themselves on matters that concern their benefactors?

In politics, perception is reality. When a president won’t release his college transcript or a governor fails to report gifts, the public assumes they’re either hiding something or are up to no good.

Actions at the local level also need to pass the “smell test.” We give Euille credit for setting an example with his disclosure on Saturday. Let’s hope others will follow his lead.

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