December 2011

The DC Council debated and voted on an ethics reform bill last Tuesday that included some improvements following the November 30th hearing, but failed to deliver serious and comprehensive ethics reform.

We commend the committee for increasing the term of the Ethics Board to six years, which will enhance the Board’s independence vis-a-vis elected officials. We are also happy to see the disqualification of the Mayor and Council members for felony conviction and the provision of online reports of businesses having contracts with the city (although we would prefer the last to be in database form).

Unfortunately, Council Chairman Kwame Brown has decided that it is more important to pass ethics reform before the holidays than to do the right thing. The vote took place only a few days after the last public hearing, ensuring that only minor changes were made to the bill. And even though more amendments are planned relating to bundling and outside employment, Chairman Brown is determined to have the second vote on December 20th. If the Council were serious about public participation in ethics reform, the first vote would have been later this month and the second vote in late January of next year. But public participation appears to be largely window-dressing.

The bill makes barely a dent in the larger problem of the “pay-to-play” culture that violates basic democratic principles. Amendments proposed by Councilmember Wells to ban contributions from entities having city contracts and to eliminate constituent service funds were voted down overwhelmingly. Meanwhile, council members claim that disclosure is preferable to regulation, yet fail to provide for the public to enjoy the benefits of disclosure in a timely and usable manner. While Councilmembers speak philosophically about the inevitability of money in politics, they do not appear to have noticed that 99% of the public is outraged at this corruption of our democracy.

The unfinished business on ethics reform is so great that were the Council to rush its second vote on the bill this month, the voters in the primary election next Spring will assuredly make it the number one reason for throwing the incumbents out.

The DC Council is set to cast its first vote today on the ethics reform legislation proposed by Muriel Bowser (Ward 4) and passed by the Government Operations Committee yesterday. It contains some positive changes, including the establishment of a separate Ethics Board. By unifying the administration of our currently scattered ethics regulations, the Board will be a vital element in making our ethics code enforceable. However, for the Board to be effective, it must be truly independent and properly managed and staffed. A Board with three members appointed by the Mayor for 3-year terms is not independent. We need a larger board of at least 7 members that includes nominees by the Attorney General and community organizations, who will be confirmed by the Council and whose terms are at least 5 years in order to cross administrations. We also need the Board to be managed by a strong Director who oversees an adequate staff. While this will require funding, restoring public confidence in our government is a sound investment.

We also hope that the full Council will consider imposing a ban on the outside employment of Council members. Serving both the public interest of DC residents and a private employer poses too many conflicts of interest. While taking leave of absence from one’s career is a sacrifice, there are many benefits from public service which make the latter more than worthwhile. The fact that a majority of current Council members do not have outside employment demonstrates the viability of this policy.

Finally, we urge the Council to consider reducing the outsized role of private money in politics, including banning private monies for official travel, banning contributions by entities with business before the city, reducing contribution limits, and eliminating Constituent Services Funds. While Council members may believe that the role of money is inescapable, the public still holds to democratic ideals. We are deeply concerned that our democracy is in danger of replacing the principle of “one person, one vote” with the reality of “one dollar, one vote.” We will be watching this vote on ethics reform carefully to see which elected officials understand these concerns and vote to safeguard our democracy.