Letter to the Editor: Conflict of interest and accountability

Letter to the Editor: Conflict of interest and accountability

Your editorial addressing the rogue actions of the Alexandria Planning Commission (“Planning commission goes rogue” in the Sept. 21 Alexandria Times) when paired with your commentary on conflicts of interest in city business (“It’s time for an Alexandria ombudsman,” Sept. 28) again draws focus to the question of ethics and accountability in Alexandria city government. It also raises the question: are those rogue actions isolated to just the planning commission?

One needs look no further than the city’s development application approval process for a prime example of why the city needs an ethics clearinghouse.

Driven by growing deficits, the city has turned to a “develop and tax” strategy. Develop at all costs to expand the tax base while taking whatever proffers they can get from developers in exchange for planning guidance and waivers to city code. This pay for play process is at the heart of just one of the many potential conflicts of interest issues.
In Alexandria, during the development approval process, a city planner is assigned to the developer to help the developer attain project approval.

That city planner, in essence, becomes a part of the developer’s team — in many cases pitting the city planner against the best interests of the citizens that city employee is supposed to be safeguarding.

City planners have admitted they ignore or interpret provisions of municipal code, small area plans and other guidelines almost exclusively in favor of developers, beginning with the pay for play meetings with those developers. There is nowhere a city staffer can turn if they feel they have a conflict of interest. This is why an ombudsman is needed.

Last year, the city manager was notified in writing of this potential conflict of interest by Alexandria resident Bud Marston, who provided accompanying statements made by city
planners that they are under extreme pressure from higher up to approve projects. Rather than address the issue, the city manager chose to endorse the process and the staff actions to advance projects. Those concerned have no recourse, and there is no accountability for city leadership. They make the rules, and they interpret them… period.

As you so aptly stated in your editorial, “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.”
The question is not “Should we have an ombudsman?” the question is, “Why do we not already have an ombudsman?”

– Dick Platt, Alexandria