Your View: Ethics committee was transparent, wide-reaching

Your View: Ethics committee was transparent, wide-reaching

By George Foote, former chairman, city ad hoc code of conduct review committee (File photo)

To the editor:
Thanks to Mark C. Williams for his letter complaining about lack of transparency in the work of the city’s ethics committee (“Ethics committee was not transparent in its deliberations,” June 16). He brings welcome intellect to the work of improving the ethical cli- mate in Alexandria.

But he is wrong about almost everything he has said about Virginia law, ethics in government, and city council’s ethics initiative.

I chaired the ad hoc code of conduct review committee for its brief life. The committee was created after hours of council discussion and citizen comment in open session. Council took legal advice from the city attorney, received input from the city manager, and heard loud objections from Williams. None of Williams’ many legal arguments against the creation of the committee made their way into the city attorney’s advice or the council resolution.

Once convened, the committee had four weeks to draft a code of conduct and ethics pledge and report back to council. We met weekly in an open first floor conference room at City Hall with city lawyers and staff. Meetings were announced on the city website. Williams was not the only member of the public to attend.

We had free flowing debates about ethics and governance, and we did indeed talk about matters more modest than our mandate and others well beyond. How could we not? This was a group of bright and engaged people who were selected by council and the city manager and charged with helping advance a culture of ethics in Alexandria.

Our committee members had been elected to office, appointed to boards and commissions and have written and lectured on government ethics. We had teachers, writers, thinkers and good, sensible citizens. All our members were active in our debates and involved in committee research and writing.

Williams did not make any recommendations to the committee for the code of conduct or ethics pledge, and we did not receive his complaints about our legitimacy, our meetings or our report until very late in our brief existence. We would have welcomed Williams into our discussion, but he said nothing to us and added nothing to our report.

But we should all applaud Williams’ apparent endorsement of more transparency in government and more discussion of ethics in the city. Yes, our committee’s charter was edited into a narrow zone by council and bounded by Virginia law, but why not expand the conversation and discuss what else we as a community can do?

There are good questions to be asked about the cynically lax ethics enforcement in Virginia. There is local and national consensus about the toxic combination of legally unlimited campaign contributions and large economic opportunity for contributors. Should we ignore the opportunity to improve what we can?

The mayor and council started an innovative and healthy local ethics conversation last year, and our committee, by design, could only take it so far. Council’s recent expansion of disclosures by corporate owners of land use applicants was another good step.

Editorials in this paper and others help foster a culture of ethics in government and across the city. Thanks to Mr. Williams for encouraging the dialogue in his own way. Let it continue.