Address realities, not appearances

Published 7:33 pm Saturday, March 21, 2015

One hesitates to withhold at least some slight credit from the faction of Suffolk City Council that sought and failed to adopt a vacuous change to council’s code of ethics on Wednesday. The fact that four of the longest-serving members of that body were looking for a change to the code suggests, at the very least, that they recognize the widespread perception of Suffolk voters that ethics are not the council’s strong suit.

Ostensibly, an update to the council code of ethics would have given council members the option of recusing themselves from votes that presented either actual conflicts of interest or the “appearance of impropriety.” The proposal grew in the wake of a dust-up over Virginia Beach Mayor Will Sessoms’ ties to TowneBank and that company’s ties to projects the mayor has voted on. Suffolk Mayor Linda Johnson has resigned her position on a TowneBank community board in order to remove the possibility of similar perceptions.

But Johnson’s TowneBank connections have never been as explicit as those of Sessoms, and folks looking for ethical breaches on Suffolk City Council hardly have to dig that deep, anyway.

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How about the fact that three former council members received donations from the Tidewater Builders Association after they already had lost the election and then proceeded to vote in favor of a controversial apartments project that benefitted both TBA and some of its most prominent members?

If council members want to talk about avoiding the “appearance of impropriety,” perhaps they could have started talking about ethics back in December when that clearly unethical vote took place. Perhaps they could have used that disgusting bit of quid pro quo as the rallying point for their bid to change the code of ethics.

But all four council members who voted last week to codify an amendment aimed at protecting the appearance of ethicality on council have been strangely silent about the actual assault on ethics that took place in regards to the TBA vote.

Suffolk citizens have a right to expect their representatives on City Council to have more regard for actual ethical behavior than concern for the appearance of propriety. Folks in Suffolk should be able to expect their local representatives to give more than lip service to the concept of the public trust.

The damage that has been done to that public trust is too great to be fixed by tweaking a code of ethics designed to be more about providing political cover than true checks and balances. That public trust cannot be restored until Suffolk’s council commits itself to an approach that addresses realities rather than appearances.

Public trust has hit an iceberg in Suffolk. Twaddling about with the code of ethics at this point seems a bit like moving furniture around a pitching deck.