By Butch Porter
A lot has been said about the changes to the Ethics Pledge and Standards of Conduct passed by the Board of Supervisors in January. There has been great angst about anyone daring to deny the need for one (we’ve had one before) and even greater preening about the bi-partisan demand and courage to revise and update the Standards and re-implement the Pledge.
Let us contend that the new wording of the pledge is adequate to the task, and it is indeed good that it was done in a bi-partisan manner. Allow me to buck the conventional wisdom, however, which would hold that it accomplishes anything substantial in the way of ethics and accountability in Loudoun County government.
If someone runs for an elected position who has exhibited a high amount of character and integrity in their past endeavors, it would stand to reason that they would continue this trend in public office, and if they have not shown that character, we shouldn’t vote for them. Period. After all, the author, and likely many reading here, learned the bulk of their lessons on character prior to reading the Loudoun County Standards of Conduct. The same is likely true of supervisors. Fully half of the fourteen points of the pledge are simply statements of intent to obey the law, and most of the rest are affirmations of the most basic interpretation of public service that nobody could possibly refuse if they are pursuing an elected position.
Anyone who would look at this pledge and say, “You know…I guess I won’t run. Numbers five, seven, and fourteen seem really hard!”… is not likely to run for office anyway. Anyone who would not: abide by the law; represent their constituents; and act professionally, would — having apparently no real moral center anyway — have no problem signing a pledge they do not intend to follow.
More importantly, ideas matter every bit as much as character, and it is in this area that we need a great deal more attention.
For instance, if someone of traditionally high character were to run for office at the county level, who had a view of government that elevated it beyond the role of protector of rights, and defender of liberties, but instead believed the government to be the great equalizer; or the planner of the future; or the supreme judge of all morality, “social justice” and right and wrong, then…well, no ethics pledge will keep them from running roughshod over the rights, duties and privileges of citizens, and using government funds and authority to do it.
This “activist” view of government magnifies accountability risks substantially. It indicates to the person behind the dais that, though they never really had the means to help their fellow man before, they do now. Whatever company, non-profit board, committee or task force most Supervisors served on before, they may not have had the opportunity to create regulations, taxes, fees, or laws which might positively — or negatively — affect those who they deem as political allies — or opponents.
Put another way, the “Ethics Pledge” seems to go in one direction. Ask yourself: are high taxes and regulations considered “special favors,” technically? But what kind of damage can be done, while not conflicting with the Standards of Conduct? And is a non-profit, advocacy group, or “human interest” program, getting increased funds or favors based on a relationship with a supervisor going to receive the same scrutiny as…say… a developer getting a zoning approval? Should it?
And this is not simply about campaign laws and conflicts of interest. The county is in charge of a $2 billion budget now, which includes the funds for public health and safety, libraries, transportation issues, and of course, a sizable chunk for public schools.
Hopefully our board members understand enough about integrity and reason and representative government to make an ethics pledge easy. Time will tell if they have an understanding of proper limits of their reach, what they should and should not consider the “county’s business” and who, indeed, are “all citizens.” Hopefully we are spared the discovery that, though all citizens are equal, some are more equal than others.
An “Ethics Pledge” shines a spotlight on character, while revealing nothing about anyone’s character, and far less about one’s core philosophy of government and intentions on how to use their vote and influence on the board. If we are not careful, it can lull us into a sense of complacency whereas we neglect to ask what supervisors actually believe in and want to accomplish, both before and after their election. Too much attention on a pledge can make us as citizens, in the best case, intellectually lazy, and in the worst case, superfluous and unnecessary.
Butch Porter is a Leesburg business owner and local commentator.