Robert Wechsler is Director of Research for City Ethics Inc. www.cityethics.org, a non-profit organization that provides advice on local government ethics issue. It was founded by former federal prosecutor Carla Miller. Wechsler has penned a commentary for the organization’s website that he shared with OIB prompted in part by CT Post reporter Brian’s Lockhart’s stories questioning the veracity of the city’s Ethics Commission.
Maybe the city’s Ethics Commission needs an Ethics Commission to set it straight. It’s not a true independent body. Historically, it has proven itself a toothless tiger. Wechsler raised a series of important questions in his commentary. Check it out:
It can never be said too often that the quality of a government ethics code is meaningless. What matters is how the ethics program actually works.
Take Bridgeport, CT for example. It is the largest city in Connecticut, with a population of 150,000. It is a poor city in a rich county, and it has had a history of corruption, including the mayor’s conviction on federal corruption charges a decade ago.
According to an article last Sunday in the Connecticut Post, improvements were made to the ethics code during the investigation of the mayor. Later, the city council added two members to the ethics commission and approved the hiring of a full-time ethics director, who would be the only paid local government ethics professional in the state. A new ethics code was passed in January 2012. And now, the city is going to require annual ethics training. This is clearly an ethics program that is going somewhere.
Except that two of the seats on the ethics commission have been vacant for months, and the five remaining members’ terms all expired two to three years ago. No ethics director was ever actually hired. The new ethics code still does not give the ethics commission any teeth. And required ethics training does not appear to amount to much. According to the EC chair, “Supervisors are to spend 20 to 25 minutes outlining ethics principals in the city code, answering questions and steering employees to city resources like how to file confidential complaints with the commission.” The supervisors are then supposed to provide ethics training to their staffs.
How can someone with 25 minutes of ethics training do training herself? Training the trainer is a reasonable way to save money, but it requires far more training for the trainer. And what about elected officials, board and commission members, the ethics commission? Do they get any ethics training? If so, how much and by whom?
The ethics commission webpage shows no sign of activity. There are no meeting records, and no record of complaints, proceedings, or advisory opinions. There is an ethics complaint hotline number, but the EC’s May 2012 Citizens Guide (mostly about making complaints) makes no mention of it, and the ethics ordinance says that complaints must be in writing, on a form provided.
An article in the Post on Monday does refer to a finding of no probable cause by the ethics commission back in 2010. The matter involved free passes to the city’s big music festival, given by the festival director to all council members. A big problem here is that the ethics commission, which without a director is completely dependent on the city attorney’s office, is not allowed to explain why it found no probable cause. And yet the city attorney feels free to explain it publicly. The article quotes him as saying, “Various city officials, including police, fire, health and parks personnel and the City Council, mayor and staff are provided with all-access passes to permit them the freedom to effectively perform their public duties and responsibilities.”
Of course, public safety officers need access to the grounds during the music festival, and since the festival is held on parks property, parks personnel also have to be present. This is their job. It is not so clear that the council, mayor, and mayoral staff all need free passes. This is exactly the sort of matter that should be discussed publicly by an ethics commission. In fact, it should have taken the form of a request for advice. Or it could have been discussed by the ethics commission on its own initiative. But if no official asked for advice and the EC did not see its role as raising ethics issues in highly visible matters, it should have at least let the matter pass the probable cause stage and let it be discussed in a public hearing, with arguments by both sides. That is if, with only five members, it can reach the required quorum of four and then get a required vote of four, which is intended for a commission of seven members, which it hasn’t had.
In other words, Bridgeport’s ethics program is not working. The city lacks the essential elements of a government ethics program: real ethics training, an independent ethics officer to provide timely advice and guide the volunteer ethics commission, an independent and full ethics commission selected by community organizations, three kinds of disclosure, and the authority to penalize officials and employees who violate the ethics code.