Our View: Council denies public say on ethics reform

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Our View: Council denies public say on ethics reform
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(File photo)

Despite all of the hype around improving ethics and transparency at City Hall over the past year, perhaps it should be no surprise that the end result of city council’s deliberations on the issue is weak lip service.

Mayor Allison Silberberg ran for her current seat citing ethics as a key issue. She made the establishment of a committee to propose new ethics measures a priority when she came into office. But since then, little of consequence has happened.

The committee returned to council with a new ethics pledge and code of conduct, documents with little teeth and no enforcement mechanism. On Tuesday night, city councilors tweaked the measures, weakening it in some areas — reducing the requirements for ethics-related professional development and for community dialogue on ethics — and strengthening it in others — clarifying that councilors must avoid even the appearance of impropriety in their actions.

By this point, we had resigned ourselves to the fact that the ethics committee’s work should be considered at best as a wash, a well-intentioned effort that led to little in the realm of concrete safeguards against corruption.

But council’s decision to adopt the code of conduct and ethics pledge at Tuesday’s legislative meeting, instead of holding a public hearing on the measure, is baffling.

The decision means that, aside from when Silberberg encouraged residents to come to a public hearing in January to advocate for ethics reform during a general public comment period, Alexandrians have had no opportunity to advocate for or against the measure in person.

The move not to hold a public hearing seems like the height of foolishness. What controversy would city councilors avoid by preventing public testimony? The measure as adopted is inoffensive; the harshest criticisms are that it is either unnecessary or doesn’t actually do enough to improve safeguards.

In fact, preempting the public’s ability to weigh in on the ethics pledge is far more deleterious than anything residents could have said against the measure.

It raises questions and concerns among observers about why council would choose not to allow residents’ input at a public hearing. And it goes against the spirit of improving transparency, creating the very appearance of impropriety that the measure aims to prevent.

Meanwhile, it astounds us that while council’s discussion of ethics has been focused on a toothless measure like this new code of conduct, it quietly and unanimously approved a much more substantive change to improve transparency: reducing the threshold at which a development applicant must disclose its financial backers from 10 percent down to 3.

This rule does far more than an ethics pledge to improve the public trust, and yet it was approved at city council’s May 14 meeting on the consent calendar, meaning there was no discussion.

It is a shame that an opportunity to strengthen safeguards against misdeeds was squandered, while city leaders allowed an initiative that actually makes a difference to go virtually unnoticed. In the end, what really mattered flew under the radar. And the public was denied a voice.

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