Our View: Ethics committee whiffs on reform proposals

Our View: Ethics committee whiffs on reform proposals
Alexandria City Hall. (file photo)

(File photo)

The print edition of this editorial mistakenly suggested that city council had not taken action to reduce the threshold for disclosure of ownership stakes in a company with business before the city from 10 percent. Council requested a change to its code to reduce the threshold to 3 percent in January, and is expected to pass it in May.

The Ad Hoc Code of Conduct Review Committee made its much-anticipated recommendations for an ethics pledge and code of conduct at city council’s meeting Tuesday night. The recommendations are perhaps better than nothing, though they appear to raise more questions than they answer.

We are, frankly, disappointed, both in the product and in the process that resulted in this proposal.

Mayor Allison Silberberg made ethics reform one of the pillars of her campaign last year and took office with significant popular support for an initiative. She announced plans to tackle the issue on her first day as mayor. But a compromise proposal introduced by Vice Mayor Justin Wilson at the January 30 council meeting, which passed unanimously, called for a committee with a narrow mandate, an accelerated timeframe and no public hearing.

Despite impressive individual credentials in the realm of ethics reform, committee members produced a report that, in the words of chairman and Silberberg appointee George Foote was “aspirational” and “values-based” rather than compliance-based. Although in the form of a code of conduct, the recommendations would not be legally binding since there would be no penalty for violations.

We suppose having a code of conduct that encourages city councilors to speak publicly about ethics issues and requiring them to sign an ethics pledge will raise awareness around the topic. But it’s difficult to see what exactly is gained from vanilla statements like, “officials will behave in a manner that inspires public confidence.” And City Councilor Tim Lovain expressed concern Tuesday that vague wording in the code of conduct could open elected officials to legal action.

This report is a shame, because it’s a missed opportunity to expand safeguards against public corruption. Major ethics violations are like tornadoes: they don’t appear from nowhere, but instead erupt when a combination of conditions creates instability.

Corruption in general occurs when need meets opportunity in an environment that lacks safeguards. Do those conditions exist in Alexandria? Well, our elected officials make a paltry amount of money relative to the hours they put into the job.

City councilors make just $27,500 and the mayor only $30,500 for an office that, when all of the ceremonial appearances, prep work and meetings are added up, amounts to an almost full-time commitment for city councilors and more than a full-time job for the mayor. Council can eliminate this element of instability by passing a significant pay raise that would take effect after the next local election.

But opportunity for ethics violations also exists in Alexandria, and that’s what this committee should have addressed. One very specific and helpful change would be easy to make: Require elected officials to publicly announce it whenever a person appearing before council — applicant or opponent — has contributed to their campaign.

As we said in January, an ethics reform study group should make “concrete, useful proposals.” This group didn’t do that.

Our recommendation is for council to hold a public hearing on this report, take that citizen input and go back to the drawing board. Real ethics reform is needed in Alexandria, but this isn’t it.