Our View: An amended call for an ombudsman

Our View: An amended call for an ombudsman

In last week’s editorial we issued a call for an ombudsman in Alexandria to oversee ethics issues. In the intervening week, we learned an important facet of our argument was incorrectly stated.

We think the correcting of that facet only strengthens the call for better ethics oversight.
Last week, we noted that in the online application process for local citizens to serve on boards and commissions, there is no mention of the ethics code of conduct and pledge that were passed in May 2016. That is correct, but the reason there’s no mention is because the code and pledge are not legally enforceable and do not apply to boards and commissions. That’s a mistake on our part – and an unfortunate missed opportunity by council that it still has the ability to correct.

When the Ad Hoc Code of Conduct Review Committee was created in January 2016, it was tasked with making recommendations for an ethics code of conduct and pledge for the city. After meeting several times, the committee’s report in April 2016 included the language that we cited in last week’s editorial:

“…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 added that appointed officials shall take “no action that will result in or create the appearance of personal gain or conflict of interest.”

But council did not approve that innocuous language. Nor did council ever slate the issue for a public hearing so city residents could weigh in. The only time Alexandrians were able to present their views to council was when a few people showed up and spoke during the “open mic” portion of the Jan. 30, 2016 public hearing.

Over the objections of Mayor Allison Silberberg, council declined to docket the issue for the June 2016 public hearing – which would have allowed for resident input – and instead voted to pass the “aspirational,” non-binding version at the May 24, 2016 legislative meeting.

To be clear, council deliberately dodged hearing from the public on an ethics code and pledge, then passed a watered down version with no teeth just to be rid of the issue.
A meaningful ethics program, including an ombudsman that would be independent of both council and the city manager, is still possible. Council is required to docket the item for discussion at a public hearing before the end of the current council term, which ends in June 2018.

We hope at that time our elected officials will seriously consider changes that will prevent the kind of conflicts of interest that are present on the Parking Standards for New Development Projects Task Force. People who clearly stand to gain financially from recommendations they make should not be placed on committees, commissions, boards and task forces that deal with those issues. Period.

Several councilors throughout this debate have stated they are offended that the issue of ethics is even being raised, as if by saying we need strong, definable standards we are by definition accusing them of corruption. We think just the opposite: you get a flu shot to avoid getting the flu. It doesn’t work if you’re already infected.

The old saying is right: an ounce of prevention really is worth a pound of cure.