Most people consider Alexandria an ably-run city. Our city staff in general are competent, knowledgeable and well-meaning. There have been no scandals in recent years among our elected officials.
While we often disagree with the approach of council and our city government regarding process and on specific topics, particularly ones that pertain to livability, those differences are policy-related and are, in the grand scheme of things, small.
Why, then, do we believe ethics reform is needed in Alexandria?
Because ethics is a lot like preventative maintenance: if it’s not approached properly, all may seem well on the surface, but trouble may be brewing underneath – invisible until it erupts as a huge problem. It’s better to anticipate the leaky roof at a school than to have to deal with conducting classes in a mold-infested building. Likewise, it’s better to put preventative measures in place than to react to a major ethical lapse.
Three years ago, when Allison Silberberg was running for mayor, she made ethics reform one of the centerpieces of her campaign, and she introduced a proposal for an ethics commission her first week in office. That commission did produce an ethics pledge, but it was altered by council and is largely toothless.
The most significant ethics change enacted by council at that time involved disclosure of investors in development projects. The level of ownership that required disclosure was reduced from 10 percent to 3 percent.
That was an improvement, but an individual in Alexandria’s government could still own 2.5 percent of a very large development project – worth millions – without that ownership being part of the public document. Yes, when people run for office they are supposed to list all of their investments and provide a full financial disclosure. However, those disclosures are not actively policed. Hidden investments could easily stay hidden.
We think that the next council should take the preventative and deterrent step of enacting a 100 percent disclosure requirement on all development projects in Alexandria.
During the ethics discussion in 2016, Councilor John Chapman proposed establishing a permanent ombudsman for Alexandria to oversee ethics issues. We were intrigued by that idea at the time and hope that Chapman will revisit the topic with his new colleagues in 2019. Council may decide an ombudsman is not the way to go, but it’s an idea worth researching; find out what other comparable cities have ombudsmen and whether or not they’re effective.
There are three additional ethics-related topics we hope the new council will consider.
First, there needs to be a period of time between when an elected official leaves office and when they can be employed by the city in a lobbying or consulting capacity. Five years seems reasonable.
Also, all elected officials should be required to disclose when someone comes before council or the school board, to speak for or against an issue, who has given them a campaign contribution. If the topic comes to a vote, the elected official should be required to recuse themselves from voting.
Finally, no one should be appointed to a board or commission whose business or clients stand to benefit financially from recommendations made by that board or commission.
We are sure there are many more ethics-related issues that bear discussing, but we think the three above, in addition to the proposal for 100 percent disclosure on development projects, would be significant, preventative measures.
Alexandria is known as a trailblazer on many fronts. Let’s add ethics leadership to that list, and in so doing, reinforce that roof before it can begin to leak on us.