Alexandria Mayor Allison Silberberg’s first major initiative is an attempt to turn the city into a national leader in ethical governance. (Nikki Kahn/The Washington Post)

By the standards of big-city politics, Alexandria is not a noticeably corrupt place.

A few city employees have been arrested and convicted of embezzlement or assault in the past decade. But no elected official or top manager in the 150,000-population, inside-the-Beltway burg has been publicly caught with a hand in the till.

Still, ethics and potential corruption seem to be very much on the mind of newly elected Mayor Allison Silberberg (D), whose first major initiative is an attempt to turn Alexandria into a national leader in ethical governance.

“We should do this not when there’s an issue, but when the sun is shining,” Silberberg said. “You set the highest standard . . . it’s the right thing to do [even] when there’s not a problematic situation.”

The mayor has drafted a resolution calling for a nine-member study group to create a code of conduct and ethics pledge for elected and appointed officials; suggest ways to be clearer about why the council goes into closed session; impose stricter limits on gifts; and authorize state-level audits of council members’ already-required personal financial disclosure forms, among other items. Silberberg says she would also like to establish an ethics advisory commission to provide education, offer advice and handle citizen complaints.

She is urging residents to turn up at the council’s public hearing on Saturday to express their opinions on the need to establish tougher ethics practices.

“We have many city commissions, including a beautification commission, but we don’t have an ethics advisory commission,” she said in an interview this week. “The employees of our city sign an ethics pledge. Our elected leadership should, too.”

But Silberberg’s initial effort as the city’s leader may be blocked or revised by other members of the all-Democratic City Council, several of whom think her proposal isn’t specific enough.

Council member John Taylor Chapman said Silberberg’s proposal is too wide-ranging, though he is open to the idea of some ethics reform.

“I want to look at what we’re missing and what action we can take,” Chapman said. “You can make a reasonable argument that a code of conduct or ethics pledge should be in place in case something happens.”

Although Silberberg said her initiative is “only forward-looking, not about the past,” the idea for it came from her 2015 election campaign against four-time incumbent William D. Euille (D), whose campaign was funded in part by developers and others who had business before the council.

Euille maintained that he properly disclosed every potential conflict, and therefore breached no city rules. Silberberg promised that if elected, she would push for more disclosures and create an ethics commission to advise the council and handle citizen complaints.

It is not clear whether some of Silberberg’s proposals would violate Virginia’s Dillon rule, which essentially reserves lawmaking power for the state unless the legislature grants specific authority to cities or counties. A spokesman for the state attorney general’s office declined to comment on Silberberg’s initiative.

Other Northern Virginia jurisdictions primarily follow the state guidelines, although Loudoun County just adopted a 14-point code of ethics. Virginia requires elected officials to disclose a statement of their personal financial matters twice a year.

The General Assembly in the spring tightened its own ethics guidelines, after a scandal resulted in charges and convictions of former governor Robert F. McDonnell (R) and his wife, Maureen.

The state’s new Conflict of Interest and Ethics Advisory Council is supposed to offer advice to both state and local elected officials, raising the question of whether Alexandria would need its own commission to serve the same role.

Silberberg said she wants an advisory panel for the city that, among other things, could review the council’s frequent use of closed sessions and recommend ways to make some of them more open to the public.

The council already is required to declare why it is going into a closed session. In the past year or two, it has begun citing the relevant portion of Virginia’s open-meetings law, which allows public bodies to close their doors when discussing any of 44 subject-area exemptions, including land acquisition, attracting new businesses, legal challenges and collective bargaining.

Vice Mayor Justin Wilson said he is willing to consider creating an annual report of the reasons the council has met behind closed doors, but noted the steps the council has already taken.

Alexandria’s government was the first in Virginia to post officials’ personal financial disclosure forms online, Wilson said. The council also decided to have its work sessions in the main council chambers so they could be broadcast and webcast. The city has also begun posting its internal audit reports online, one of the first in the state to do so, he noted.

“It’s important to recognize the city runs an ethical and transparent government, and it’s something citizens should be very proud of,” Wilson said. “Can we improve on that? Absolutely.”

Silberberg said she does not want the council to take any action on Saturday. Instead, she wants the public to weigh in. Although her proposal says the nine-member study group should report back to the council by the end of April, Silberberg said in an interview that the deadline could change.

“We should not only be a state leader but a national leader in this area,” she said. “It could be a visionary step.”