Letter to the Editor: Government ethics is about institutional integrity

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Frank H. Shafroth (Courtesy Photo)
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To the editor:

I am writing to thank and commend you for your editorial, “An amended call for an ombudsman,” following up on your call for an ombudsman in the City of Alexandria to oversee ethics issues. In our review and ethics recommendations to the mayor and council last year (I served on the ad hoc ethics committee formed in January 2016), our underlying assumption was — and is — that public servants are good, honest citizens who will make the ethical choice in instances where private versus the public’s interests diverge.

Our goal, in our recommendations, was in consideration that a vital role of public officials, especially in instances where private interests are involved, is to promote public confidence in our local government, to protect the integrity of government decision-making and to try to eliminate government waste. Moreover, we recommended specific steps so that our elected officials would provide leadership in “sustaining an ethical culture in Alexandria.” It ought to be a community value. In addition, it ought to be a means for citizens to reflect upon and appreciate that our elected officials are serious about the integrity of our government — and our community.

It is regrettable council never set a public hearing, as we had recommended.
It is more regrettable that council has never acted to provide enforcement authority — meaning it is unclear whether or how prompt and fair adjudication of ethics complaints could be made or acted upon. That failure can only serve to increase public cynicism with regard to trusting the honesty and integrity of our public servants.

In a day and age when the culture of ethics on the other side of the Potomac has set increasingly lower standards, our city lost an opportunity to set an example of how good government can be. Instead, we are left with the impression that lip service was more important than integrity.

Government ethics is not just about being “good” or “a person of integrity.” It is not something officials learn at home, at school or in their house of worship.
Government ethics is about acting responsibly and professionally, as a government official or employee, under certain circumstances and following certain rules and procedures: it is about preserving institutional, rather than just personal, integrity. That is, to function, it requires a process the public can understand and respect.

Government ethics laws provide minimum, enforceable guidelines to facilitate the handling of conflict situations; local government ethics programs provide training and advice to further facilitate the handling of conflict situations. Good local government ethics programs require financial and relationship disclosure, which provides information to help the public, as well as officials, better determine if conflicts might exist, so that they are more likely to be dealt with responsibly.

The principal goal of a municipal ethics program is to further the public’s trust in those who govern their communities to put their personal interests aside in favor of the public interest. Without this trust, people tend not to participate in their government, even as voters, and they feel as if their government was something apart from their community, an organization designed to benefit its members, rather than an organization that serves and manages the community.

It is important to recognize that the opposite of trust is not distrust, which we need in order to keep our representatives accountable, but a lack of trust. A lack of trust causes people not to accept their government’s decisions as fair: a local government does not thrive when there is a lack of trust in those who govern it.

Key goals of an effective local government ethics program include 1) an ability to stop ethical misconduct before it becomes criminal misconduct, 2) the establishment of best practices and 3) a healthy ethics environment at the level where most elected officials learn the ropes. The best local government ethics programs indirectly create healthy ethics environments — and respect. A local government’s ethics are essential to accountability and democracy.

Council needs to hold a public hearing — and it needs to authorize the city manager to designate an individual to oversee our city’s ethics.

-Frank Shafroth, Alexandria (The writer is director of the Center for State and Local Leadership at George Mason University.)

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