Photo by chorwedel on Flickr.
The DC Council can take a strong step toward addressing its recent ethics issues by appointing a strong and independent ethics commission.
The council’s small size and unavoidable conflicts of interest mean that no credible ethics body can have sitting councilmembers on it. An independent commission will also take a burden off members, who will no longer have to sit in judgment of their colleagues whose votes they need to pass their own legislation.
Over the past few years, councilmembers have faced credible allegations of cronyism, lavish spending on fully-loaded SUVs, failure to pay property taxes, failure to pay income taxes, illegal construction work, unpaid parking violations, and working for companies that have business before the council. That’s a long list.
No legislature can police itself effectively. Even legislators with clean records will face conflicts of interest and, as the DC Council illustrated earlier this year, few legislators will be eager to serve on an ethics committee. Legislators risk alienating their colleagues and limiting their ability to effectively govern by strongly pursuing ethics investigations.
Passing legislation requires ad-hoc coalition-building. Any legislator on an ethics committee will feel compelled to restrain himself when investigating colleagues whose votes he needs for his own legislation.
This problem is especially true of the DC Council because it is only a 13-member body. In investigating just 2 colleagues, a councilmember risks alienating 29% of the 7 votes he needs to attain a majority for his own bills.
Furthermore, if councilmembers are policing each other, it will become too easy for political motivations to override ethical ones. If 2 sitting councilmembers want to run for chairman, mayor, or attorney general, and if one is investigating the other, it is reasonable to doubt the sincerity and fairness of the committee’s investigation.
Here again, the DC Council’s small size makes this conflict likelier.
The Council could appoint an ethics commission to solve this problem. It could consist of qualified residents to serve set terms detached from any political cycle. The mayor or attorney general could also be given appointment power to avoid any impression the the Council was loading the commission with unduly deferential candidates.
The commission would be charged with recommending ethics rules and investigating alleged violations. The commission would be given the power to subpoena relevant records and compel testimony in the course of its investigations. This power can, of course, be challenged in court to prevent the commission from abusing its subpoena power.
While actual sanctions would likely be the choice of the Council, it is important that the commission publicly publish its findings and recommendations so that the public and the media can decide whether violations merit sanctions. Private reports are useless since there is no way for the public to know if their councilmembers are failing to address legitimate ethics violations.
The various scandals uncovered recently have disappointed many residents, even those who don’t normally engage in city politics. The best way to restore and maintain public trust is through an independent ethics commission for the DC Council.