Your View: Alexandria can aspire to or ‘own’ its ethics code

Your View: Alexandria can aspire to or ‘own’ its ethics code

By Frank Shafroth, director, Center for State and Local Leadership, George Mason University (File photo)

To the editor:

I am writing in response to your editorial on ethics in the wake of the mayor and city council’s adoption of both a pledge and code of conduct (“Council denies

public say on ethics reform,” May 26). Those actions were taken in response to recommendations proposed by our ethics committee in the wake of its series of open and public deliberations.

Obviously, it would have been constructive for your paper to have contributed to those deliberations by both providing coverage and — given your views — contributing your input.

The resulting action by city council marks a stark contrast with both the Commonwealth of Virginia and Congress — both of which have supposed “concrete safeguards against corruption.” Indeed, the route of creating such so-called safeguards has spurred a veritable field day for lobbyists in D.C. and Richmond to game the so-called “concrete safeguards,” whether it is figuring out which special interests to reward with box seats for Redskins games in Richmond or how to game travel and meal rewards to the congressional system of dialing for dollars — the socalled “call time,” wherein legislators are currently urged to devote four hours a day in so-called call centers, or at fundraisers with potential donors.

There are even special places in the U.S. Capitol designated for such calls in order to avoid noncompliance with ethics rules. If there is anyone who actually believes that special interests are making millions and millions of dollars in contributions in response to such calls because of their belief they will receive nothing in return, then there is a bridge in Brooklyn for sale for a mere $26.

Congress, in fact, has just the kind of ethics system you advocate: housed in the sub-basement of the U.S. Capitol, there is a set of offices with some of the most dedicated and competent attorneys and ethics specialists one could hope to find. There is a complex, highly detailed ethics code. There is mandatory annual training for members and staff. There is, of course, also an industry devoted to finding legal ways to get around the rules — or as the old and time-honored practice on Capitol

Hill goes, for every rule, there are three lawyers to find the loopholes to get around them. It is not a system that has provided us, as taxpayers, with either the transparency or integrity to which an ethics code aspires.

Therefore, we observed early on, there were two paths to responding to the mayor and council’s guidance: we could try and devise a system laying out complex rules and procedures — such as Congress and the Virginia General Assembly have, or we could actually remember one of our city’s original residents, George Washington, and, instead, recommend that the city councilors “own” integrity, and make integrity or ethics a community commitment and ethos.

We could propose an aspirational pledge and code — and that the mayor and council play a key role in making such aspirational ethics a part of our community. Our direction was an effort that we discussed in council chambers in a public session. That is, we went out of our way to seek public input and advice, both in our sessions and before council.