City council establishes ethics study group

City council establishes ethics study group

By Chris Teale (File photo)

City councilors voted unanimously to create a group to study local ethics issues at its public hearing last weekend, fulfilling one of Mayor Allison Silberberg’s major campaign pledges less than a month after she took office.

Council created an ad hoc code of conduct review committee, to be made up of nine members. Seven will be appointed by city councilors — with Silberberg’s appointee to act as its chief. City Manager Mark Jinks will make the other two selections and likely appoint candidates with expertise in the field of government transparency and ethics.

Under the resolution proposed by Vice Mayor Justin Wilson, the group will present a draft code of conduct and an ethics pledge for council at its April 12 legislative meeting. It will review the reports by Democratic Gov. Terry McAuliffe’s commission on integrity and public confidence in state government to see if any of that group’s statewide findings in Virginia are applicable to Alexandria.

After the resolution received unanimous approval, Silberberg praised city councilors for their work on the issue.

“I want to thank my colleagues for joining me in this endeavor and coming forward with their suggestions,” she said. “I think the public knows how I feel about considering the option of an ethics advisory committee in terms of a study group, but this is a huge start, a huge step forward, but I do believe that we should be a national leader with regard to ethics. It’s good governance, good business and it’s good all-around and it would help us.”

Under Silberberg’s original proposal, a copy of which was circulated to city councilors before the hearing, she also suggested being more transparent about why city council goes into closed executive session, stricter limits on gifts received by elected officials and more stringent disclosures of ownership stakes in organizations with business before council.

All those proposals made it into the measure adopted by council, which directed the city clerk to publish online reports on the content of executive sessions and their number at the end of each fiscal year. Wilson’s resolution also lowered the ownership disclosure requirement from 10 percent to 3 percent, something he said was the “lowest around by far.”

The commission will be reconstituted every three years after a new council is elected and installed. Wilson said that provision will help keep up with the evolution of government ethics.

The question of ethics was not on the public hearing docket, but numerous citizens spoke in favor of the proposal during the public comment period. One attendee grew so incensed that the discussion exceeded the published 30-minute limit for remarks from the public — something Silberberg said happens often — that he was removed from the chamber by a police officer.

During discussions, city councilors wrestled with the plan’s details, including the scope of a possible ethics commission’s work and who would be appointed to it. City Councilor Paul Smedberg questioned whether in theory every docket item before council could be referred to an ethics commission if just one person was to raise an objection to some aspect of it.

“That to me is something very, very different than what has been proposed,” he said. “I think there is a real blurring of the line there with different groups and different individuals and how they see this thing moving forward. It really concerns me that no one has really clearly articulated, in my view, what this commission is and what it isn’t.”

City Councilor John Chapman earlier argued for an individual ombudsman of some kind to hold officials to account, and City Councilor Tim Lovain argued that such an ethics committee could reduce citizens’ trust in government and even become a “Committee on Un-Alexandrian Activities,” a reference to the U.S. House of Representatives’ Un-American Activities Committee that investigated those with supposed links to the Communist Party in the 1950s.

“We have the real possibility of people’s reputations being dragged through the mud, insinuations being made, people saying, ‘Where there’s smoke there’s fire, if you have this many ethics complaints filed there must be something going on,’” Lovain said.

Public speakers were broadly supportive of the idea to re-examine the city’s ethics rules, with several echoing Silberberg’s previous statements that it should be done now, before any scandals crop up.

“This is about prevention, prevention, prevention,” said David Jonas, who served on McAuliffe’s integrity commission. “A good ethics regime prevents ethical lapses or things that are even perceived as conflicts of interest from ever happening. This is about protecting yourselves as legislators.”

“We’re a very wealthy area and a very urban area, and this would be a good thing,” said resident Katy Cannady. “It would make everybody look better. It’s not a threat to anyone’s reputation, I’m sure, because everyone will be cognizant of the rules. There is no downside to it that I can see.”

The committee will be appointed soon, with the April 12 legislative meeting the deadline for it to bring forward proposals on a code of conduct and an ethics pledge.