By Erich Wagner (File photo)
Mayor Allison Silberberg wasted no time before setting her agenda for Alexandria following her swearing in Monday night, announcing a plan to strengthen ethics rules governing local elected officials.
In her speech following being installed as mayor and in a letter to the Times, Silberberg said she wants a transparency study group to examine issues of ethics and come back to city council at the end of March with a proposal to implement an ethics pledge for elected officials, establish an ethics code and come up with the functions and structure of a permanent ethics advisory commission.
“We have many city commissions, including a beautification commission, but we don’t have an ethics advisory commission,” she wrote. “The employees of our city sign an ethics pledge. Our elected leadership should be held to the same standard.”
Under Silberberg’s plan, city council would commission a group made up of seven members: a chairperson selected by the mayor, three members selected by city council, and one each sent from the Alexandria Bar Association, the Alexandria Chamber of Commerce and the Alexandria Federation of Civic Associations. City Manager Mark Jinks also has requested to have a representative on the group.
“I think a study group is the right approach, so our citizens can make recommendations to council,” Silberberg said in an interview. “Communities all across the nation have an ethics commission, and Alexandria should be a national leader in ethics and transparency. We shouldn’t do it when there’s a problematic situation; we should do it when the sun is shining.”
The Alexandria Federation of Civic Associations already has announced its support for the plan. In a statement, co-chairs Ali Ahmad and Roy Bird said the group supports better rules governing officials’ financial disclosures, and that members of the work group should consult with academics and other jurisdictions to find best practices.
“AFCA concurs that establishing a strong ethics commission is appropriate, especially regarding disclosures of financial interests,” wrote Ahmad and Byrd. “This is consistent with the recommendations of the integrity commission Governor [Terry] McAuliffe appointed. We note that on December 4, 2015, the Washington Post editorialized in favor of the integrity commission recommendations and stronger ethics organizations in Virginia.
“Alexandria should be a leader in adoption of ethical practices, education, and processes. AFCA believes Alexandria should have an ethics code and pledge for elected and appointed officials.”
But Vice Mayor Justin Wilson, while supportive of the idea in theory, said in order for the group to come back with concrete proposals to improve ethics-related procedures, it will need a clear mandate from City Hall.
“I’m a big supporter of ways to increase transparency in government and improve the public’s trust, but I don’t want to create a committee that doesn’t have a very clear task before them,” he said. “We need to give a very clear charge in what they’re looking at. I’m not interested in re-fighting the fights of the last several years or using this group to do that, so it needs to be forward thinking, with a clear direction.”
Wilson said officials and members of the work group also must work in concert with any initiatives considered by the Virginia General Assembly over the next two months.
“Since we’ve got a General Assembly session from January until March where they will be considering the recommendations of the statewide ethics task force, some of those are going to have profound effects on what we can do and what we should do. … We need to be careful not to duplicate efforts.”
City Councilor John Chapman also said he was supportive of the effort in theory, although he said the process actually should move even faster.
“I’m not necessarily in favor of a study group; I want to move a little bit quicker and implement an ethics code [for elected officials] and, if we need a body to take on ethics issues, put that together,” he said. “For me personally, I’m not sure it’s something that needs to be studied. A lot of stuff that can be done is very common stuff and I’m not sure if a study group is the best way to go about it.
“Putting together an ethics code and an ethics commission doesn’t hurt — it’s a great idea and it’s something good that a number of other jurisdictions have done — but it can be done and it can be done pretty quickly.”
Silberberg said she hopes her proposal will come before city council later this month.