THOUGH WE TEND to remember them best as the people who made marathon ballot counts a way of life in the District of Columbia, the three members of the D.C. Board of Elections and Ethics not only oversee elections but also handle conflict-of-interest questions at city hall. And with absolutely no fanfare-not even a public hearing, for that matter-they have just succeeded in drafting and adopting a thoroughly unsound regulation that would require the mayor and other top city officials to vacate their offices summarily if they are formally accused of conflicts of interest. It would prohibit the affected officials from being restored to office until their cases are legally concluded.
The new rule recently popped up in the official D.C. Register, the city's compendium of legal notices. It is to take effect a week from Saturday-right before the inauguration of a new mayor and City Council chairman. Here's how this invitation to anarchy could effect the local government.
Al it would take to remove the mayor or any other public official "who has no immediate superio" Would be letter of notification of charges from either the elections board or the city's director of campaign finance, who works closely with the board.
District law defines conflicts chiefly as an official's outside financial interests that could affect the conduct of office. With the mayor out, the council chairman would become acting mayor; if the chairman, too, were charged with a conflict of interest and had to step aside, the council would select one of its atlarge members to serve as chairman. How long any such investigation might take is unclear.
The board's former general counsel, Winfred R.Mundle, rightly denounced the rule in a legal opinion prepared shortly before he left that job last month. For one thing, he pointed out, the regulation doesn't really square with standards set for other officials in city hall; under the law now, a department head, for example, is required only "to remove himself from influenced over actions and decisions on the matter" that may involved a conflict of interest. Mr.Mundle also argues that the new rule would appear to 1) deny an official a hearing before action by the elections board; and 2) deny the official reasonable notice of the charges, the time, the place and the issues prompting on an order to "step aside."
It would seem self-evident that the city government cannot function if a mayor or council chairman can be run in and out of office anytime someone hurls a conflict-of-interest charge and the board agrees to investigate it. Instead-and right away, before this potentially dangerous handiwork can go into effect-the board should knock this ill-considered idea in the head.