An Ethical Challenge? Proposed New Policy Languishes at Town Council

The Leesburg Town Council appears no closer now to adopting revisions to its ethics policy than it did two years ago when it started the process.

In addition to several rounds of changes and debates, the ethics policy has now been through three different town attorneys and two different Town Councils. 

The council first directed then-Town Attorney Barbara Notar to prepare revisions to the council’s ethics policy in September 2019, with the initial goal of ensuring the policy complied with state law and included a code of conduct and disciplinary process, according to a staff report. The Town Council first adopted an ethics policy 25 years ago, and revised the policy in 2004 and 2009, meaning it’s been 12 years since the last update.

Council members initially postponed consideration of a revised ethics policy following Notar’s separation from the town in early 2020, and then to give new Town Attorney Christopher Spera, who joined the government staff last August, time to write up his proposed changes to the document. Martin Crim served as interim town attorney for Leesburg between Notar’s departure and Spera’s hiring.

Then late last year, a council majority determined it was best to wait until the new council was seated Jan. 1. But things have not gone much faster since 2021 began. 

Spera presented his proposed changes to the council in early February. He recommended the council include in its revised document both a conduct and decorum policy, and a disciplinary process. He said those elements are relatively common among other jurisdictions. 

Language in the conduct and decorum portion of the policy includes guidelines regarding the council’s conduct with each other, with town staff, and with the public during public meetings.

The proposed disciplinary process states that a council member may be disciplined when his or her conduct does not comply with the ethics, conduct or decorum policies outlined in the document. A motion at a public meeting and majority vote of the council is needed to move that process along. Disciplinary action can include public reprimand or censure, removal from a committee, or suspension for a number of meetings, the policy stated. 

Council members can also be disciplined during a meeting, and even removed from the meeting, for repeated and continuous disruption. That action would follow two warnings regarding their conduct by the chair, most likely the mayor, and again would need to be approved with a motion and majority vote of the council. 

A vote to consider the revised ethics policy was set for the council’s March 9 meeting, following another work session on the subject the previous evening. However, the council voted to table consideration of the policy until its June 8 meeting. That would be postponed yet again to the council’s most recent business meeting July 13, since not all members of the council were present for the June 8 meeting.

Yet, when the resolution came back before the council July 13, no council member offered a second to Councilman Neil Steinberg’s motion to accept the changes. The lack of action even took Steinberg by surprise.

“I have no idea of the thinking of the other council members, [and] why no one even chose to second it, even for discussion,” he said. 

Of the proposed policy, Steinberg said, “It’s a fairly straightforward thing. It doesn’t contain any language that entraps anybody.” 

Some of his council colleagues beg to differ. Mayor Kelly Burk said the policy is “just not ready yet.” 

She cited concerns with the conflict of interest language in the policy not being strong enough, and confusing wording on what was permitted with a council member’s social media use and what was not, in particular pertaining to a council member’s official page, or their personal one. 

“I would like to see us pass something that is more defined than what we have before us at this point,” she said.

Councilwoman Suzanne Fox also said she believes more work needs to be done. Some of the provisions outlined in the policy, she said, have little to do with ethics and more to do with standards of professionalism and good behavior. 

“A proper ethics policy should be enforceable and clearly-defined, with established consequences for violations. The standards of professionalism, on the other hand, are more aspirational, and couldn’t really be enforced in any meaningful way. By conflating ethics with professional conduct, you run the risk of either implying that the ethical rules are really just aspirational standards, or that the provisions regarding professionalism are somehow enforceable, leaving open the possibility that members of the council could accuse one another of [an] ethical violation every time someone loses their cool or commits some other minor council faux pas,” she said.

Fox also believes that some of the standards outlined in the policy are too vague, subjective and open to interpretation, which “leaves open the possibility that council members could essentially weaponize the ethics policy for personal or partisan reasons.”

Both Fox and Steinberg said they thought another work session on the ethics policy would inevitably be scheduled and supported doing so. Burk said she plans to request one if another council member doesn’t beat her to the punch.

The revised ethics policy can be found here

krodriguez@loudounnow.com

3 thoughts on “An Ethical Challenge? Proposed New Policy Languishes at Town Council

  • 2021-07-23 at 7:07 am
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    Politicians arguing over ethics is a joke at the highest level.

  • 2021-07-25 at 9:21 pm
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    Why aren’t they acting on this? Answer — Tom Dunn and Ron Campbell are gone. That’s why

  • 2021-07-27 at 11:20 am
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    Leesburg, like the Loudoun County government, needs an independent Inspector General to handle these matters.

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