Our View: Alexandria needs ethics reform


(File photo)

Alexandria has a long history of individuals who, by their behavior, led the way in serving as role models. Samuel W. Tucker in 1939 risked imprisonment to organize America’s first sit-down strike against racial discrimination. The family of Norma L. Steuerle served as an example for philanthropic giving by donating funds they received after she was killed in the September 11, 2001 attack on the Pentagon to help found ACT for Alexandria.

Alexandria’s new mayor Allison Silberberg is attempting to do the same thing with government ethics and transparency. Many politicians talk about the need for transparency, but few follow those words with actions. Silberberg, as vice mayor and during her campaign for mayor, recused herself from votes where she perceived a potential conflict of interest and refused to accept or returned contributions from donors with business before council.

On her first day as mayor, Silberberg announced a proposal to establish a seven-person study group to examine ethical best practices. She wants the group to report back to vice mayor this spring with proposals for an ethics pledge, an ethics code of conduct for city councilors and with guidelines for establishing a permanent ethics advisory commission.

We think this is exactly the right approach.

The proposed changes could be potentially extensive, and the issue therefore does need to be studied for a few months rather than acted on immediately, as City Councilor John Chapman suggested. The study group must research ethical best practices thoroughly before making its recommendations.

The timing for this effort is also ideal, as a state-level commission on ethics recently released its recommendations for reform in Richmond. Alexandria’s initiatives will need to be coordinated with those emanating from the statehouse, but the Port City’s study group should not hesitate to go further than their counterparts in the capitol.

There is also no denying that changes regulating ethical conduct are needed, even if some have trotted out the cliché that this is “a solution in search of a problem” in an attempt to claim otherwise. Right now, it is legal for a member of council to receive a contribution from a donor one week, then the next week vote on an issue worth many millions of dollars to that donor, without revealing the donation beforehand, recusing him or herself from the vote, or returning the donation.

We think the residents of Alexandria have a right to demand a higher ethical standard for their elected officials. In fact, we think they have done so, by elevating Silberberg to a close victory in the June Democratic primary and a landslide win in the November general election. She took office with a mandate for ethics reform and has wasted no time in following up on her promise.

When a leader sets an example on an important issue, they do more than impact the short-term issue at hand — they sow the seeds for others to follow suit. In that vein, we at the Alexandria Times are re-examining our own conflict of interest policies. We encourage others in the community to follow the mayor’s lead in reviewing their ethics practices.

Endorsing this study group does not signify endorsing the end product. Group members must come up with concrete, useful proposals at the end of their research and deliberation. But this initiative needs to be launched right away. There is no excuse for anything other than a 7-0 council vote for an ethics study group.



  1. “Right now, it is legal for a member of council to receive a contribution from a donor one week, then the next week vote on an issue worth many millions of dollars to that donor, without revealing the donation beforehand, recusing him or herself from the vote, or returning the donation.”

    Just to note, it is also legal for a member of the Council to vote on an issue worth millions of dollars collectively to a subset of wealthy homeowners, and then to received the very active support, as well as the donations, of that set of homeowners.

    I fear that this will become an attempt, not to improve ethics in City governance, but simply to sway the balance of power between developers on the one hand, and the Old Town Civic Association on the other. And that it will lead to worse, not better, public policy.

    • Read Silberberg’s op-ed…she wants the Civic Associations to run City policy during her tenure as mayor. What harm could come form having non-democratic non-statutory groups have veto power over City matters?

    • Or maybe the Times is wrong, as evidenced by Section 3 on page 8 of the Special Use Permit application form (http://www.alexandriava.gov/uploadedFiles/planning/info/forms/SpecialUsePermitApplicationPackage2.pdf) which reads:

      “Each person or entity indicated above in sections 1 and 2, with
      an ownership interest in the applicant or in the subject property are require to disclose any business or
      financial relationship, as defined by Section 11-350 of the Zoning Ordinance, existing at the time of this
      application, or within the 12-month period prior to the submission of this application with any member of
      the Alexandria City Council, Planning Commission, Board of Zoning Appeals or either Boards of
      Architectural Review. All fields must be filled out completely. Do not leave blank. (If there are no
      relationships please indicated each person or entity and “None” in the corresponding fields).”

  2. Based on the below quote that I copied out of the Policies and Procedures Manual for the City Council of Williamsburg, it would appear that the City of Alexandria cannot adopt more stringent measures on conflicts of interest than the General Assembly has adopted. If that is the case, many of the concerns voiced in this op-ed are more appropriately addressed at the State, and not the Local, level.

    “To ensure citizens that the judgment of public officers and employees is not compromised or affected by inappropriate conflicts, the General Assembly adopted the Virginia State and Local Government Conflict of Interest Act. Violation is a criminal offense. To keep standards of conduct uniform throughout the Commonwealth, no local government may regulate conflict of interest more strictly than the Virginia

  3. This is a strong editorial. We live in an era that views government with cynicism. Elevating discourse and standards of ethics for government is an excellent step to reassuring the public, and there are plenty of examples throughout the country of local governments adopting ethics pledges, codes of conduct and ethics commissions (or similar bodies) with great success. It makes sense, as Councilman Chapman pointed out, to spend time studying the issue and recommending what will work in Alexandria.

    The fact that the Times is re-examining its own conflict of interest policies is exactly the point — causing people to re-think their assumptions regarding ethics.