ETHICS COMMISSION; Iron out Kinks

Article excerpt

The city's ethics framework is too conflicted and limited in scope for the public's good.

The city's nine-member volunteer Ethics Commission is the public's point group for promoting strong ethics practices among city officials and employees, reviewing and responding to ethics problems and helping to foster more confidence in government through better accountability.

Its membership is balanced, appointed by the mayor, City Council president, state attorney, chief Circuit Court judge, School Board, Civil Service board and three others chosen by those appointees.

They have an important role to play on behalf of citizens. That's particularly so in speaking out when something might be legal, but could discourage confidence in government.

The group has no formal staff, however. It relies heavily on the city General Counsel's Office for legal advice.

Part-time City Ethics Officer Carla Miller provides training for city officials, handles complaints to the city's confidential ethics hotline and other research.

The Ethics Commission also gets a hand from the city Inspector General's Office regarding follow-up on complaints to the hotline.

Unfortunately, the commission's main two resources have built-in conflicts.

STICKY SITUATIONS

The General Counsel's Office has an inherent conflict because it represents City Council members and the mayor.

In cases involving complaints involving either, will its legal opinions be made from the perspective of an attorney representing those clients or the Ethics Commission seeking answers?

She reports to both the City Council president and the mayor, which puts her position at odds with the city power structure if ethics complaints involve her superiors.

The commission needs both an independent attorney for some matters and a more independent ethics officer.

The ethics officer should report directly to the commission with few strings to the council.

Otherwise, the commission's ability to fully explore ethics problems on the public's behalf often will be conflicted and potentially compromised.

Of course, much of the Ethics Commission's effectiveness depends on the commission itself and its will to explore politically sensitive issues.

STRUGGLING WITH ITS ROLE

The commission struggled at its last meeting with taking the historic step of initiating an ethics inquiry of its own. It lacks its own procedures for taking such a step. This should not be too difficult to create with help from the General Counsel's Office and Miller.

In the end, the commission made a positive call in asking City Council Vice President Jack Webb to visit the next meeting in December.

Webb created a stir after The Times-Union revealed he had accepted some legal work from potential landfill bidder Republic Services after leading a council campaign to open up future operations of The Trail Ridge landfill to bidders.

Webb insists he broke no ethical or legal laws involving the business, which he has since given up due to the controversy.

But a broader discussion of the issue would be helpful.

What good is an ethics commission if it can't or won't do its job?

POSITIVE SIGNS

The commission in the last year has not been as faint of heart as its most recent meeting suggests. …