Your View: Ethics committee was not transparent in its deliberations

Your View: Ethics committee was not transparent in its deliberations

By Mark C. Williams, Alexandria (File photo)

To the editor:
I was surprised and disappointed by the letter “Alexandria can aspire to or ‘own’ its ethics code” (June 2). The letter asserted that the committee appointed pursuant to city council’s ethics and code-of-conduct resolution “went out of our way to seek public input and advice, both in our sessions and before council.”

I attended all but one of the meetings of that committee. Apart from city staff and the committee’s members, I was the only person to do so.

I have served in three different capacities on two different city commissions, am a former member of a city political committee, have been an appointed advisor to a congressional staff and have actively participated in several political campaigns. The committee’s processes are the least transparent that I have ever observed, in any governmental context.

First, the committee did not in a timely manner adopt or post its minutes until its work was nearly completed. Second, the committee did not adopt or post an agenda for any but its initial meeting. Third, the committee did not respond to, or even acknowledge at any meeting, even one single inquiry posted to the Q-and-A web page established by city staff for the committee — several inquiries were made, but not one was addressed.

Fourth, at no time did any person, other than the committee’s members or city staff, ever speak at any committee meeting. Fifth, while city staff had explicitly offered legal briefings on Virginia law relating to local government conflicts and disclosure requirements, the committee did not call for or accept any such briefing apart from an abbreviated initial introduction, and no such briefing was ever delivered at any committee meeting.

Sixth, many of the committee’s members attempted, at three consecutive meetings, to self-convert the committee into an investigative and enforcement body, with no legislative authorization from city council and no legal basis for any such effort.

Seventh, the committee’s members were not required to file, and did not volunteer to file, personal financial disclosure statements that are required of appointees to several other city commissions.

Eighth, at two of the committee’s meetings, committee members openly discussed their desire to expand the terms of city council’s directives to change their legal deadline. And while committee members discussed non-public communications with city councilors and non-meeting correspondence concerning committee business, none of these communications have been publicly posted.

The characterization in the letter that the Times published is inaccurate as a purely factual matter. The ethics committee may well have gone out if its way, but it certainly wasn’t aiming towards transparency.