Opinion: Letter to the Editor: Time for Ombudsman

Opinion: Letter to the Editor: Time for Ombudsman

Since the Alexandria City Council City Council has failed pathetically to engage in any real discourse concerning the establishment of a Citizen’s Ethics Commission, an Inspector General (IG), or even an Ombudsman, how do they expect to satisfactorily handle any ethical infractions that may arise?

For years I have proposed that an Inspector General (IG) or Ombudsman be elected to audit the effectiveness of government, or to discover the possibility of misconduct, waste, fraud, theft, and or other types of criminal and unethical activity perpetrated by individuals or groups. The Mayor had a well-intentioned ethics initiative that regrettably was torpedoed by her council colleagues.

An IG or Ombudsman’s office would operate independently reporting only to the City Council. He or she would be elected to this job in a non-partisan manner for a period of six years. The job description outlining what expertise this individual must possess would start with a demonstrated high degree of integrity and additionally possess professional credentials in the areas of accounting, auditing, investigations and public administration. A greater amount of time expended by this individual would be in auditing, inspecting and generally conducting in depth investigations of the city’s programs. There is no doubt that millions of dollars of the taxpayers money could potentially be saved annually.

At the state level, just go back and look at what then Governor Warner’s Commission on Efficiency and Effectiveness led by former Governor Douglas Wilder reported out from its investigation of statewide services several years ago. They were asked to identify ineffective and redundant services; recommend what agencies could be consolidated and/or streamlined; and show how technological improvements could improve the delivery of services cheaper. Their mandate was to see how many services could be streamlined using the private sector as a model.

Two important findings resulted from this commission. The first one being the fact that the state had $3.1 billion of uncollectible accounts receivable. Not only were their billing means deemed to be ineffective but their collection procedures were equally delinquent. In addition, by streamlining the way the state does business they could save approximately $1.3 billion annually. Obviously these funds would come in very handy when the state attempts to balance its annual budget.

The City of Alexandria should perform the same analysis of its programs in the city’s operating, capital improvement programs and schools budgets. There is absolutely no doubt that we the taxpayers would benefit greatly from this service. It is hard to believe that the City Council, city staff and various boards and commissions never encounter ethical dilemmas, especially concerning management of new developments. As an example, although there are zoning laws that have been in existence for years, a developer need only make a quid pro quo “proffer” of $100,000 to Bikeshare in order to build a structure that is at variance from the originally enacted zoning layout of the community. This “paying to play” brings up a number of potential ethical concerns, yet no one seems to curb this business practice that has been tolerated over the years. Another lesser concern would be the staffing of boards and commissions. For example why do we allow one individual to be the vice chair of the Planning Commission, the Waterfront Commission, the Old Town Area Parking Study (OTAPS), and the chair of the Parking Standards for New Developments/Commercial Uses? No ethics problem there?

All in all, there is definitely a place for an IG or Ombudsman in the City of Alexandria. Other jurisdictions have faced up to this challenge, yet Alexandria is content to remain mired in timidity and hesitation where the oversight of ethics is concerned.

Townsend A. "Van" Van Fleet