THE ETHICS BILL approved by the D.C. Council this week is not perfect. As was noted by those both on the council dais and in the audience, there were missed opportunities. That, though, shouldn’t detract from the council’s accomplishment in openly grappling with issues that historically have been swept under the rug and in making marked improvements. Also encouraging is the council’s promise to continue reform with action on campaign financing and contracting practices.
By a vote of 12 to 1 on Tuesday, the council overhauled the District’s approach to government ethics. It created an independent commission that will be empowered to enforce a toughened code of conduct for elected officials and public employees. The dissenter was Tommy Wells (D-Ward 6), who believed that the measure did not go far enough. Mr. Wells is right that the council should have done away with constituent service funds and tackled the role that money plays in District politics. Nonetheless, the bill, which Mayor Vincent C. Gray (D) is expected to sign, is an important step.
Credit goes to Muriel Bowser (D-Ward 4), who was given what was generally seen as the hopeless task of crafting legislation that was both meaningful and had a chance of passage. She largely was able to fend off efforts to weaken the bill that, on final reading, actually improved with the much-needed addition of a provision that allows the council to expel members guilty of gross misconduct. No doubt the bill’s chances were aided by public disgust over a series of government scandals this year.
It was apparent that Chairman Kwame R. Brown (D) hoped his push for action this year might help to quell controversies over his own conduct, and clearly no council member wanted to be seen as opposing reform. Whatever the motive, though, Mr. Brown’s position was commendable. By contrast, Jack Evans (D-Ward 2) acted to preserve the right to purchase sports tickets with his constituent service account. Equally unpersuasive was Yvette M. Alexander (D-Ward 7) bemoaning how the public will be hurt by the cut in constituent service funds in light of the fact she was sanctioned by campaign finance officials for improperly using some of her funds for political purposes. Clearly, though, the most absurd moment came when Marion Barry (D-Ward 8) proclaimed there has been no history of corruption in D.C. government.
Thankfully, others on the council made clear that the bill won’t be the final word on reform. Ms. Bowser said that the government operations committee, which she chairs, will next year review D.C. procurement practices and the role that campaign contributions play.