Allison Silberberg plans ethics push

Allison Silberberg plans ethics push
Allison Silberberg (Courtesy Photo)

By Erich Wagner (File photo)

It’s been three weeks since Allison Silberberg was elected mayor of Alexandria, but she said she still is trying to catch up.

“It’s been hectic,” she said in an interview. “I’m very grateful for all of the incredible letters and emails I’ve received — and there’s a mountain of emails. It’s really heartening. … I hope people are being patient about my answering all of these, because I haven’t given it to others to handle for me yet. I still like to do that and handle it myself.”

On November 3, Silberberg, the Democratic nominee, defeated four-term incumbent Mayor Bill Euille, who forged a write-in campaign after losing the June primary by 312 votes. Silberberg secured 63 percent of ballots cast, with 16,610 votes, while Euille received 9,170 votes. Other write-in votes totaled 573 ballots.

Since then, Silberberg said she has been working to talk with city staff and newly elected and re-elected city councilors to begin the transition process ahead of her swearing in on January 4. But that comes on top of the regular city council schedule and physical therapy to rehabilitate from a torn Achilles tendon she suffered playing tennis over the summer.

But one campaign refrain remains at a top of her agenda: the establishment of a city ethics commission to improve government transparency and disclosures.

“It’s a top priority, and I think I’ll have more to share on it in the coming weeks,” Silberberg said. “How that will evolve, I’m in the midst of working on that with others and working on finding best practices from across the country and finding what is possible and weighing the various options.

“But of all the things I would talk about during the campaign, no matter where I was in the city, when I talked about the public trust and establishing an ethics commission, I got the biggest across-the-board applause and response.”

The mayor-elect said she has been researching ethics initiatives across the country and is looking to see what university and public policy centers have to say on the topic. But she wants to make sure the process for establishing the commission is open to public input.

“I’m already getting citizens’ emails and calls saying, ‘I want to be involved,’ and I’m definitely welcoming any and all input,” Silberberg said. “People have been sending material for me to read, and we’ll certainly have more to say in the coming weeks. My goal for the city is to put something forward that takes into account a lot of different voices and perspectives, but also moves this forward.”

Vice Mayor-elect Justin Wilson said that although he is generally supportive of efforts to improve transparency and resident access to government, he wants to see a specific measure before endorsing anything.

“I only know what I’ve seen in the press,” Wilson said of the ethics commission proposal. “I would certainly like to review a proposal if and when it’s made, and then figure out where we go next. But this outgoing council, as well as previous councils, has done a lot to create what is probably the most transparent, accessible and above-board government around.

“We were the first city in the state to put our financial disclosures online. And [now-Delegate] Rob Krupicka, [City Councilor] Paul Smedberg and I went to Richmond in 2009 to get a new law passed that allowed the city to enact a new set of disclosures for planning commission and council members.”

Wilson added that he would be happy to examine Silberberg’s proposal before city council in September to lower the threshold by which businesses coming before council disclose their investors below the current 10 percent.

“I said then that I was supportive of a lower percentage, although I don’t know what problem that would solve,” he said. “Every member of council has to disclose all of our financial interests, so there’s no problem on that side. But if it increases folks’ confidence to have applicants disclose investors with a less than 10 percent stake, I’m willing to consider it as long as it’s feasible.”

Silberberg said another priority is to find a way for city staff to publish policy memos sent to city councilors online or sent to stakeholder listservs in real time, not just as attachments to a council meeting agenda item.

“Obviously if it’s confidential, that’s one thing, but if it’s just a policy memo, I want to make it easy on folks,” Silberberg said. “Maybe there could be a page on the city website for recently released staff memos, maybe per the last week or so, and then after that it goes to whichever project it’s associated [with] on the website.

“Why not make it easy for residents? This is an example how we can do things even better.”