© 2019 Thad Williamson. Authorized and Paid For By Thad Williamson For Richmond City Council.

  • Thad Williamson

Fifty Fixes for the Fifth, #11-15: Ethics, Participation, Equity

Our Fifty Fixes for the Fifth series resumes! Fixes #11-15 focus on improving city government in three areas: ethics, participation, and promoting equity. Read on!

11. Implement the recommendations of the Ethics Task Force from April.

In April a citizen-led Ethics Reform Task Force produced an insightful report concerning how to improve ethical conduct within City Hall. Its recommendations, if implemented, would help produce a needed culture change: one in which employees are expected and empowered to acknowledge potential or perceived conflicts of interest impacting their public responsibilities, in which there is written, comprehensive guidance for employees regarding ethics-related policies, and in which all employees receive annual training. The Task Force also called for legislative change to limit lobbying of city government by former public officials (elected or appointed).

These recommendations are reasonable; what’s important are both the details and how committed Council and the administration are to implementing them. Councilperson Larson has introduced legislation calling for creation of an Ethics Reform Commission to provide advice and guidance on implementations of the Task Force Recommendations.

12. Appoint an Internal Ethics Czar

In addition to establishing the Ethics Reform Commission, I believe the City Administration should appoint an internal “ethics czar” who can provide practical guidance to employees regarding how to handle specific situations involving actual, potential or perceived ethical issues before any action is taken, to assure that employees follow established policy and law and so that no employee can credibly say “I didn’t know” about a given regulation. This role should also have primary responsibility for proactively educating employees at all levels about policies and practices, year-round. Establishment and empowerment of this role could both reduce problems on the front end and contribute to needed cultural change throughout the organization. The ethics czar should be empowered to work across all agencies and required to provide regular reports to both the Mayor and the Ethics Reform Commission.

13. Refine City Policy to Strengthen Anti-Nepotism Rules

Recent events reveal the need and desirability to clarify anti-nepotism regulations with respect to chief executives. In Richmond’s unique system of government, all employees report directly or (in most cases) in directly to the Chief Administrative Officer (CAO). The CAO in turn reports to the Mayor. It is inherently problematic for persons related to either the Mayor or the CAO to work in any agency that ultimately reports to them, regardless of the specific circumstances of said employment. In short, it shouldn’t happen. City policy and as needed relevant code should be amended to make this explicit and unambiguous going forward.

14. Participatory Budgeting!

I’m extremely excited and fully support the resolution presented by Councilmembers Addison, Agelasto and Larson calling on the Administration to set aside a total of $15 million over the next five years in the capital budget—starting with $3 million next year—for projects to be selected by citizens in a participatory budgeting process. Participatory budgeting is an established model in the Global South of democratic engagement: it asks citizens what projects and needs they see in their community, then allow them to select the top priorities (via voting) to move forward. Participatory budgeting has the potential to empower communities, develop new citizen leaders, and help all citizens better understand our city’s needs, challenges, and opportunities.

Bringing participatory budgeting to Richmond is a welcome civic innovation that is certain to attract much interest and attention from 5th District residents. Further discussion will be needed to flesh out the details, especially to assure that equity is promoted at three levels: equity between City districts, equity in who participates (with an explicit emphasis on promoting participation among marginalized groups), and equity in which projects are ultimately selected (to assure urgent community needs get the most consideration.) A well-designed process can meet each of these dimensions of equity, but it is important to get the details right (and be prepared to adjust to the lessons of experience).

15. Equity Audit!

Speaking of equity . . . Richmond is also overdue for a comprehensive equity audit of its core services. Which roads get cleaned fastest? Which medians get better grass trims? Which streets get plowed first when it snows? Which neighborhoods have easiest access to city services? Which groups—by age, race, gender, income, neighborhood—most frequently and least frequently access available city services?

Some of this information could be gathered at relatively low cost by the existing Performance Management Office, which can (through the CAO) request all agencies provide specific data already in hand.

In other cases, a comprehensive approach might require agencies to begin collecting and reporting new data. The City of Seattle has been a national leader in developing a toolkit focused on racial equity in city services and outcomes; Richmond should learn from that model as well as other communities in this emerging national conversation.

Work of this kind is especially important for the 5th District, with our diversity and range of neighborhood conditions. A thriving Fifth District requires that all our neighborhoods are receiving an equitable share of city services; we cannot know that is the case until we commit to measuring it.