Should Langley have a dedicated ethics commission? That’s the issue before the city council and it’s a worthy discussion to be sure.
In our view, the answer is made clear with one simple question: Who would better address complex ethical concerns that arise within City Hall’s ranks — a dedicated group of trusted advisors from the public or the very same city leaders who may be the subject of a future complaint?
Considering the city’s recent track record, having a group of volunteers to serve as a moral compass doesn’t seem like such a bad idea.
Langley found itself wrestling with tough ethical concerns with its past two mayors. One was determined to be unfounded and the most recent resulted in a jail sentence. It was those experiences that spurred the creation of an ethics code to guide city elected officials and staff.
Drafted by Langley citizens, the guidelines were adopted and incorporated into city code, but the council stopped short of approving the group’s recommendation to create a standing ethics committee.
The group’s wishes on this matter were somewhat unclear — the council thought it was adhering to its counsel — and the decision was coupled with concerns that a standing ethics committee wouldn’t have enough to do, that inactivity would fuel witch hunts.
Perhaps so, and the unnecessary erosion of public trust and community discord are understandable and valid concerns, but are ultimately unconvincing.
While it’s true the public is a finicky master and nothing can be done without some complaint, a standing ethics committee would not have license to put city officials on trial for every complaint that comes down the road. Great time and energy has already been expended on a road map — the ethics code — that makes clear what is appropriate and what is not.
Secondly, the public is intelligent and people are fully capable of deciding for themselves the merits and legitimacy of any finding or discussion by a standing ethics committee. Case in point, would a slanted and unfair news story go unnoticed?
There are times when it seems government watchdog organizations, such as newspapers, get as much scrutiny as elected officials. Someone is always watching and people will and do weigh in when they feel it’s needed.
Transparency and accountability are cornerstones of democracy, and the council has taken a great stride with the adoption of the ethics code, but it shouldn’t stop there. Moving forward with the creation of a dedicated committee may prove uncomfortable at times, but it would demonstrate the city’s commitment to these indispensable and guiding principles.