Loudoun Supervisors Approve Ethics Pledge

The Loudoun County Board of Supervisors has imposed on itself a Code of Ethics and Standards of Conduct after intensive rewording  in committee.

See the Code of Ethics and Standards of Conduct here.

The Code of Ethics and Standards of Conduct began as two documents, one 15 items long and one 13, but was condensed to a single 14-items document.

“It was a very collaborative effort, and I believe what has come out is a solid pledge,” Chairwoman Phyllis Randall (D-At Large) said. “Both in letter and in spirit, it reflects what I believe this particular board, these nine people sitting up here, stand for.”

Supervisors agreed that creating the policy was a collaborative process in which several supervisors had a hand, and widely praised the document, although Supervisor Geary Higgins (R-Catoctin) worried at its length. He mentioned the Biblical Ten Commandments:

“That’s probably the best moral code or code of ethics that’s out there, and we’ve got fourteen,” Higgins said. He also pointed out that “most of things that are in this pledge are things that we are already required to do under the many laws that govern public officials.”

Supervisor Tony Buffington (R-Blue Ridge) thanked Randall for not pushing for a vote when she introduced her proposal at the first meeting of the board’s term.

“It did allow us to have some more dialogue and discussion on it,” Buffington said.

Vice Chairman Ralph Buona (R-Ashburn), who was heavily involved in the document’s revision in committee, said creating the final document was like watching sausage being made, but said “in the end, I think we have some very good sausage here.”

Two supervisors on opposite ends of both the dais and the political spectrum agreed that the cooperation on the ethics pledge bodes well for the board’s work during its term.

“I just want to make sure everybody remembers this day going down the road,” said Supervisor Koran Saines (D-Sterling).

“I think that this process has shown that this board is ready to work together,” agreed Supervisor Ron Meyer (R-Broad Run). “I think that sends a great message that we can achieve some great things in the next four years.”

The new ethics pledge draws heavily from Randall’s proposed Code of Ethics, bearing little reference to the first draft of the Standards of Conduct. That first Standards of Conduct leaned toward supervisors’ personal behavior, particularly in meetings. It included guidelines like “Be respectful and attentive. Avoid comments, body language or distracting activity that conveys a message of disrespect for the presentations from citizens, personnel or colleagues” and “Avoid a private lifestyle that casts doubt upon the integrity and competence of the Loudoun County government.”

By contrast, the first draft of the Code of Ethics dealt more with respect for the position and responsibilities of a supervisor, with rules like “Never use any information gained confidentially in the performance of governmental duties as a means of making private profit” and “Make sure, when responding to the media, that a clear distinction is made between personal opinion or belief and a decision made by the Board of Supervisors.”

From the beginning, supervisors have agreed broadly with the idea of an ethics pledge, but some pointed out in early considerations that the rules were largely unenforceable except at the ballot box. Supervisor Matthew F. Letourneau (R-Dulles), in particular, although never opposed to the ethics pledge, pointed out that “ethics is what we all make of it as individuals” and that board members have taken the strongest possible action against unethical conduct among their numbers even without a pledge.

Randall repeated  emphasized  that the ethics pledge is an “forward-facing document” for the residents, who she said will be able to use it as a litmus test of their supervisor’s actions when they vote. She colorfully compared the ethics pledge to a wedding ring:

“All of us who are on this dais and who are married have a wedding ring on our finger,” Randall said. “The wedding ring does not make us act married, but the wedding ring is a symbol to the outside world that we have made a commitment and promise to something.”

An ethics pledge was a key promise of her election campaign, but she has also emphasized that it is not meant to be a judgment on previous supervisors. The board was rocked in the last term by one former supervisor’s resignation in the face of criminal charges and another supervisor who was formally sanctioned for allegations that he misused county resources.

In the end, a 15-item document was endorsed unanimously by the board’s Finance/Government Operations and Economic Development Committee; a few last-minute changes at the board meeting brought it down to 14. The final draft was approved 8-0-1, Letourneau absent.