Our View: It’s time for an Alexandria ombudsman

Our View: It’s time for an Alexandria ombudsman

A conflict of interest is defined as a situation where a person is positioned to derive personal benefit from actions or decisions made in their official capacity. Conflicts of interest can be subjective, but like pornography, most people know it when they see it.

In Alexandria, an elected official is not precluded from voting on a topic of importance to a major donor. Many in the community view this as a conflict of interest. This situation occasionally arises and our officials usually – but not always – state they received a donation. Only once in our recall has an official actually recused themselves after receiving a contribution: in June 2015, when then Vice Mayor Allison Silberberg recused herself from a vote after receiving a $100 campaign donation.

Conflict of interest situations also arise on Alexandria’s commissions and boards, both permanent and ad hoc. An example of this is the Parking Standards for New Development Projects Task Force. This group is meeting to consider changes to Alexandria’s parking requirements for developers – and its members include two developers, a development attorney and a development association representative.

At this group’s most recent meeting last week, one of the developers actually stated that parking is one of the most expensive things he has to provide. And he’s tasked with making recommendations on how much to reduce parking requirements.

We view this as a blatant conflict of interest.

A person who stands to obviously gain financially, or whose clients will reap financial savings, should not be on a task force dealing with an issue. That seems so obvious as to go without saying.

We don’t believe there was any nefarious intent with this task force. The four members in question have donated many hours of their time to this group, which has been meeting monthly throughout the year. All seem to be intelligent, well-meaning people. But they should never have been appointed to this task force.

Erroneous processes appear to be at fault. There are several problems that we can identify:
First, with ad hoc task forces, there’s obviously a temptation for City Manager Mark Jinks to stack the deck with people who will support a desired outcome. City staff who are working with this group endorse significant reductions to parking requirements – and the group’s composition ensures that these recommendations will go forward.

Additionally, in the online application process for city residents to serve on commissions and boards, there is no mention of the ethics requirements that were passed by council last year. Applicants are provided links to requirements that they attend 75 percent of meetings, and another to a 1983 financial disclosure rule, but not to the 2016 code of ethics and conduct.

Here’s what that code, in part, says:

“…appointed officials will: 3) Not act on a matter in which a conflict of interest exists, and be diligent in avoiding even the appearance of a conflict of interest …” The ethics pledge adds that appointed officials shall take “no action that will result in or create the appearance of personal gain or conflict of interest.”

What we have in Alexandria is a lack of oversight on ethics matters, as our justpassed ethics code is not being adhered to. Which brings us back to an idea that was presented by City Councilor John Chapman last year, and raised again on these pages by Townsend Van Fleet two weeks ago: we need an ombudsman in Alexandria.

Only a person who is immune to the politics of council or the wishes of the city manager can ensure compliance with our ethics code.