Thursday, April 17, 2008

Accountability and the Mayor

I am disappointed that the editors of the Times-Dispatch have approved of the double standard that is being applied to former Richmond director of emergency management Benjamin Johnson and Mayor Doug Wilder. As I pointed out yesterday, Mr. Johnson and Mr. Wilder each accepted from the city both a monthly car allowance and the use of a city-owned car, double perks to which they were not entitled. Mr. Johnson lost his job. Mr. Wilder gave the excuse that he didn’t know how much compensation he was receiving and, as of this morning, is still occupying the mayor’s office at City Hall. The TD editors justify the difference in outcomes in this language:

Indeed, if resignation defines the proper response to incidents of this nature, then a double standard becomes inevitable. A mayoral departure would send this city into crisis. Chief executives are usually held to different standards.

The TD editors conclude that the only check on a rogue chief executive’s disregard for the law is the ballot box.

The citizens of Richmond are entitled to accountability from all their elected and appointed city officials and employees. They have a right to expect that no public official is considered above the law. Yet, the TD is supporting Mr. Wilder’s behavior, which for three years has indicated that he thinks he is above the law, by indicating that chief executives should be held to different standards.

I have only one question. Why?

The TD suggests that the mayor’s resignation would “send this city into crisis.” Come on, guys. What kind of answer is that? Are you really suggesting that the citizens of Richmond must accept unethical, perhaps illegal, behavior from the mayor which they would not accept from any other city official? And, exactly what kind of crisis are you expecting? Would the James River stop flowing? Would all city owned buildings suddenly crumble? Would the police department stop enforcing the law? Would trash no longer be collected? Would the city’s public schools close down? Would those who rely on the city for support suddenly stop receiving city services?

Are you guys serious? Are you suggesting that it was wrong for the Congress to begin impeachment proceedings against Richard Nixon because it might have sent the country into a crisis? Are you suggesting that it was wrong for the House of Representatives to impeach Bill Clinton because it might create a crisis? Do you really mean that our chief executives (presidents, governors and mayors) should be considered above the law?

The TD editors should realize that our City Charter provides for the removal of the mayor from office when his or her public behavior does not meet established standards. Section 304.1 of the charter states:

B. The mayor may be removed following the procedure set forth in § 24.2-233 of the Code of Virginia applicable to constitutional officers; provided, however, that the petition must be signed by a number of registered voters in each council district equal to at least 10 percent of the total number of votes cast in the last general election for mayor in each respective council district.

The standards for removal are set forth in section 24.2-233.1 of the Virginia Code as follows:

For neglect of duty, misuse of office, or incompetence in the performance of duties when that neglect of duty, misuse of office, or incompetence in the performance of duties has a material adverse effect upon the conduct of the office . . .

So, despite the dire consequences that the editors fear, the law does not provide that our mayor is above the law, and provides a mechanism (other than elections) for his/her removal. Further, the City Charter tells us how to deal with a vacancy in the office of mayor. Section 304.B sets out the procedure for electing a replacement mayor should the office become vacant.

As I pointed out yesterday, instilling an attitude of accountability in all our city officials and employees requires a zero-tolerance policy. And that attitude of accountability must start at the top. As citizens and taxpayers you and I have the right to expect that public money is being used efficiently and lawfully. When an officer or employee misuses public funds, we should expect that he or she will face the consequences of their actions.

There may be factual differences between the cases of Benjamin Johnson and Doug Wilder that would justify their being treated differently. However, if our government is to earn back the trust of its citizens we must apply the same standard to all public officials and employees. We cannot allow a different standard to be applied to our mayor.

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