Ethics commission presents draft pledge

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Ethics commission presents draft pledge
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By Chris Teale (File photo)

City council unanimously accepted the Ad Hoc Code of Conduct Review Committee’s draft code of conduct and ethics pledge at its legislative meeting Tuesday night. City attorney James Banks now will undertake a legal review of the documents before they are docketed for a public hearing in the future.

Council formed the committee in late January, fulfilling one of Mayor Allison Silberberg’s major campaign pledges and setting in motion more discussions on ethics and transparency. City councilors each appointed a member, while City Manager Mark Jinks had two selections to the nine-member panel.

Committee chairman George Foote explained to councilors in a presentation that there were two options for its recommendations: have the code of conduct be compliance-based and filled with rules, or be values-based to give city leaders something to aspire to. Foote said the committee chose the latter option, given the strong ethical framework already in place.

“You don’t wait until your car breaks down until you take it in for a tune-up,” he said.

Councilors were broadly in agreement that the code of conduct represents a good start to what is already a strong ethical foundation in city government.

“I think we are certainly a leader in this area, and I think we should continue to extend that leadership,” said Vice Mayor Justin Wilson.

Foote said the committee left council to decide on a number of issues that had been discussed in January, including a complaints procedure for citizens to raise their ethical concerns and how those complaints would be acted upon. Foote added that the committee did not make any recommendations on how to encourage public participation, but that the appointment of an ethics officer or ombudsman might be a solution that council could consider.

Part of the code of conduct makes a distinction between the appearance of a conflict of interest and the existence of a conflict of interest, while the ethics pledge only makes mention of the appearance of a conflict. City Councilor Tim Lovain said that consistency was key in this area, with which Foote and his colleagues agreed.

The committee recommended that all members of the city’s boards and commissions sign the ethics pledge, along with city councilors, the city manager, city attorney and city clerk. Wilson took issue with the desire to see board and commission members sign the pledge, but Silberberg said she saw no issue with the need to sign. Wilson said that as some boards and commissions are constituted under Virginia law and have their own pledges, the Dillon Rule may prevent further layers.

The code of conduct provides for councilors to lead education sessions on ethics and transparent governance at least once a year at a school or in discussion at a community group meeting.

City Councilor Paul Smedberg raised concerns that he and his colleagues may not be qualified to lead such discussions as they are not ethics professionals, but Foote said it was all part of a wider plan.

“You wrestle every day with ethical problems large and small,” he said. “It’s a matter of just fostering the culture of ethics.”

As part of that community outreach, councilors are asked under the draft pledge to go out and discuss ethical governance specifically with residents. City Councilor John Chapman said he wanted to ensure it did not take precedent over other issues facing the city.

“I just wouldn’t want to see the major themes in the community be overtaken by [ethics],” he said. “I would want to see them side by side.”

City Councilor Willie Bailey said councilors set the example through their actions on the dais, while he said he had no problem with going out into the community.

“The best way I can facilitate [discussion] is I got elected to city council, and I’m going to lead by example,” he said.

Another suggestion was to have an award be given to an individual who exhibits particularly ethical behavior. City Councilor Del Pepper said it was a good idea to reward a student or young person, while Chapman said it should be treated more like a lifetime achievement award that recognizes a long record of ethical actions.

Banks now will undertake a full legal review of the draft code of conduct and ethics pledge before it returns to council for further discussion and a public hearing. The committee’s work is now officially over, although Foote and his fellow members expressed a willingness to consult with officials on an informal basis as the code evolves.

Councilors praised the committee’s work, which met four times in the space of three weeks in March and studied codes of ethics from across the country as well as numerous scholarly works on the subject.  Foote emphasized that the work is just beginning.

“Our studies have revealed many practices across the country that promote good and inclusive government through sustained attention to ethical conduct and ethics education and advice,” Foote wrote in a letter to council. “We urge you to continue to explore these practices along with regular attention to the terms of the code of conduct.”

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