Our View: Systemic, civil ethics reform is needed

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There’s been a lot of talk recently, both in the Times’ opinion pages and on local social media sites, about ethics and conflicts of interest. We agree that these are important topics, and that additional ethics reform is needed in Alexandria to weed out potential conflicts of interest.

However, the tone of this discourse has devolved to a level of incivility that we find offensive and unhelpful. It’s one thing to state an opinion about perceived conflicts of interest – or opinions on a range of topics – it’s quite another to impugn someone’s character for play- ing a role that’s legal under Alexandria’s current code.

Alexandria Planning Commission Chair Nathan Macek recently has borne the brunt of this criticism because his for-pay job is with a company that does business with the city on a range of projects, most notably the Potomac Yard Metro Station.

We agree that city code needs to be changed so that someone with Macek’s day job does not serve on the Alexandria Planning Commission, let alone be its chair. But we also commend Macek for the many hundreds of hours that he has donated to the city in his service on various boards and commissions.

It’s easy to go on a site and lob a mean comment about someone because we disagree with their position on an issue. It’s considerably more difficult to make oneself attend countless less-than-scintillating meetings, weeding through the minutia of city issues. This is time people like Macek could be spending with their families or pursuing other interests.

In order for a discussion of needed ethics reform to remain civil, it needs to take place in the sphere of systemic changes rather than criticisms of individuals, who are merely functioning within what the current system allows. As such, below are our observations and recommendations.

The first issue is the sheer number of boards and commissions in Alexandria. The city’s website lists 68 permanent commissions and boards. This is in addition to task forces or commissions established for short periods of time, such as the task force that met during 2017 to make recommendations on parking requirements or the joint city-schools task force that examined ways to integrate school and city operations.

That’s a lot of task forces that need qualified participants – probably too many. Does every issue require an on-going, resident commission? We think a lot of these could be eliminated.

Second, the city’s various boards and commissions are not equal in the impact they have on life in Alexandria. Clearly, the Planning Commission and Board of Architectural Review are in a category of themselves when it comes to impact on city life. As such, stricter conflict of interest provisions should apply to these two entities than, say, the sister cities commission.

Other commissions that might form a second tier of boards and commissions to be more closely regulated would be the Transportation Commission, the Board of Zoning Appeals, Budget and Fiscal Affairs Advisory Committee, the Economic Development Partnership, the Traffic and Parking Board and the Waterfront Commission.

That’s it – eight total out of 68 boards and commissions. And the city council fix needed to eliminate conflict of interest concerns for those eight entities is simple and straightforward:

“No person shall serve on the Alexandria Planning Commission, Board of Architectural Review, Transportation Commission, Board of Zoning Appeals, Budget and Fiscal Affairs Advisory Committee, Economic Development Partnership, Traffic and Parking Board or Waterfront Commission whose company has done business in the City of Alexandria during the past five years. Anyone serving on one of these boards whose company begins operating in the city must resign from their board or commission when their current term expires.”

For continuity’s sake, current board members like Macek could be grandfathered in until their current terms expire. We have no doubt that ample residents who meet the above criteria could be found to ably serve on eight commissions and boards – and subcommittees of those eight entities.

This issue is systemic, not personal. Let’s fix it and be civil as we do.

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