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Peter’s Take: Arlington Should Lead Now on Ethics Reform

By Peter Rousselot

Thursday - 10/10/2013, 1:00pm  ET

Peter’s Take is a weekly opinion column. The views and opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ARLnow.com.

Peter RousselotLast week brought the welcome news that the Arlington School Board has put out for comment a new draft policy to set stricter limits on the circumstances under which School Board employees and elected School Board members may accept gifts. Congratulations to the School Board for taking the lead in this area.

It’s time for the Arlington County Board to do the same.

The current Arlington County Ethics Policy is much too vague and weak. On the subject of gifts, for example, the current Arlington County policy urges its employees to “ensure that no favors, gifts, gratuities or benefits are received for actions taken.” This provision simply urges county employees not to violate current Virginia criminal law. Arlington County can do much better than this.

As months of scandalous disclosures about Star Scientific, Gov. Bob McDonnell and Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli have demonstrated, current Virginia criminal law has become a national laughingstock because of what it allows rather than what it forbids. Should Arlington County be satisfied simply by telling its employees: “don’t be criminals?” No.

Nor should the County Board wait around to find out what the Virginia legislature might do next year in this area. Like the School Board, the County Board should start to work now because defining higher ethical standards correctly will take some time.

Fortunately, the County Board does not have to reinvent the wheel. There are models available to use as a starting point. For example, the office of the New York State Comptroller has created a model code of ethics for municipalities.

Even though the New York model code was created for local governments in that state, almost all of the issues it addresses are generic issues that should be addressed by a county in Virginia as well. Examples of such issues include:

  • Gifts (Section 17)
  • Recusal (Section 6)
  • Investments (Section 8)
  • Board of Ethics (Section 18)

As I wrote in an earlier column about Gov. McDonnell: just because something might not be illegal, doesn’t make it ethical.

Arlington County can and should set higher ethical standards for its employees and elected County Board members than those set by Virginia’s criminal laws.

It’s time to get started.

Peter Rousselot is a former member of the Central Committee of the Democratic Party of Virginia and former chair of the Arlington County Democratic Committee.