THE D.C. COUNCIL has come up with an inventive way to handle nettlesome advice from ethics officials: Change the rules. That’s so much easier than changing behavior that people of lesser understanding might find inappropriate.
The council voted this week to change its rules of conduct as they relate to constituent service. The unusual move to change the council code in the middle of a term was, The Post’s Mike DeBonis reported, in reaction to an advisory opinion issued in August by the Board of Ethics and Government Accountability.
Having had to admonish council member Vincent B. Orange (D-At Large) for improperly intervening with inspectors seeking to close a business for health-code violations, the ethics board thought it would be helpful to offer guidance in an area in which it admitted there were no “bright lines.” Mr. Orange had defended his actions as “clearly acceptable constituent service.” The thoughtful 18-page opinion by Government Ethics Director Darrin P. Sobin drew on best practices in good government and included useful examples of how officials should and should not conduct themselves.
We would have thought council members who claimed to want to improve the image of a body where there has been serial wrongdoing (including the forced resignations of three members) would have welcomed the opportunity to up their game. Instead, they crafted language to give themselves wiggle room in their ability to throw their weight around and practice retail politics. It’s unclear, for example, if Mr. Orange’s intervention on behalf of a campaign contributor would have constituted a violation under the amended rules.
Only two council members, David Grosso (I-At Large) and Tommy Wells (D-Ward 6), opposed the change initiated by Council Chairman Phil Mendelson (D). “[The board] is doing what they were asked to do . . . and now we cut their legs out from them,” Mr. Grosso told us. Mr. Wells, a candidate for mayor, said the move sets a “bad precedent.” We agree and urge the council to undo this wrongheaded decision.
Not only was the move a slap in the face to the city’s independent ethics board, but it also sends a troubling message about the commitment of the council chairman and his colleagues to good government.