City council’s surprise decision to approve an ethics study group at Saturday’s public hearing — the issue wasn’t on the docket — was an example of political wrangling resulting in a good product.
Like many successful compromises, the “sausage making” aspect of the process was not particularly pretty: No one on council appeared to get all of what they wanted. The process was unusual. Yet the residents of Alexandria got a much-needed step forward toward ethics reform.
Kudos are due all around.
Foremost, the vote was a significant victory for new Mayor Allison Silberberg, who was able to turn a key campaign theme into reality one month after taking office. Silberberg championed the issue all year, conferred with ethics experts between the election and taking office to hammer out a concrete proposal, and worked at convincing her colleagues to move forward with reform.
Though other members of council appeared more reluctant, several produced their own takes on the issue. City Councilor John Chapman developed a plan that included a new permanent ombudsman position. City councilors Tim Lovain and Paul Smedberg seemed receptive to the general idea but were clearly opposed to a standing commission because of the potential for it to become a runaway train.
In the end, it was Vice Mayor Justin Wilson who took Silberberg’s template and deftly tweaked it to produce the unanimous vote. One takeaway from this outcome is it showed that Silberberg and Wilson could become a formidable team — one that would greatly benefit the city — if they are able to keep their oars pulling together rather than at cross purposes.
The approved resolution has much to commend. The study group is charged with developing an ethics pledge and code of conduct for elected officials. It is also supposed to review initiatives from Gov. Terry McAuliffe’s (D) ethics commission in Richmond to ensure Alexandria’s reforms are in compliance. The provision lowering the threshold for disclosing involvement in development projects from 10 percent to 3 percent is a significant step forward in transparency.
Despite its positive attributes, we think the resolution contains one glaring omission: It does not explicitly tackle the issue of verbal, public disclosure of campaign contributions and recusal from votes on issues involving donors.
Yes, there is an existing state law that requires candidates on a ballot to report campaign contributions to the state. But given that most Alexandrians are not sleuths, the reality is most residents are unaware of specific donations involving people who appear before council.
This means elected officials can take any amount of money from donors and vote on issues of great importance to those donors, secure in the knowledge that most Alexandrians are unaware of the connection between donor and vote.
In order to dispel perceptions of impropriety, the study group’s code of conduct must include provisions that require city councilors to:
• Recuse themselves from all votes involving donors above a certain threshold, possibly $1,000. This should apply to donors on both sides of an issue — a developer, or an angry neighbor of a proposed development, for instance.
• Disclose publicly at the hearing prior to a vote if they have received a donation of less than the threshold amount. The city councilor can then decide whether or not to recuse themselves.
Saturday’s unanimous council vote establishing an ethics study group was good news for those who advocate for reform. Of course, it’s easy to profess a love of good ethics — along with Mom, the Washington Nationals and the George Washington birthday parade. The final product will reveal whether or not they actually meant it.