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What’s Next: Part Time Elected Offices Set Up for Ethics Failure

What’s Next with Nicole is a biweekly opinion column. The views expressed are solely the author’s.

As we head into Crossover (learn what that means here) in the General Assembly, I have a sense of pride about the great legislation that will likely become law during this session. I also maintain a massive fire of anger about a continued ambivalence towards ethics reform.

No substantive ethics reform will take place in the general assembly this year. At least one of our own Arlington legislators voted against every campaign finance reform measure presented to the Senate Committee on Privileges and Elections, leading to its death in committee, including campaign contribution limits of $20,000 (SB 488), and prohibiting contributions from a public service corporations such as Dominion Energy or Washington Gas (SB 25). In the House, all four campaign finance bills (HB 111, HB 851, HB 895, HB 848) died by not being voted on in Committee.

My State Senate campaign and other primary campaigns across the Commonwealth almost had ethics at the forefront of our campaigns. That seems to have fallen on deaf ears. I bang my head against a wall knowing that the “Virginia Way” will prevail as we continue in a system that is set up for ethics failures.

I believe this to be true due in large part to the part-time nature of the legislative body. Session is less than two months long and the pay for Delegates is $17,640 and for Senators is $18,000. I could say the same for local offices such as Arlington County Board and School Board offices that are truly full-time jobs with Board meetings year-round, including weekends, and salaries of $55,147, significantly under the average individual income for north and south Arlington.

As much as we may give grief to these elected officials, you must acknowledge the financial decision these officeholders have taken in order to serve the community that they care so much for.

For this same reason, it is difficult for us not to follow the money. In the legislature, with the glorified stipend you are given, most electeds must work another job. While they are doing that other job, the full time lobby shops in Richmond that make a majority of incumbent donations and send dozens of mailers for their GOTV reelection efforts, are shaping legislation for the next session as soon this February is over.

I do not say this to mean lobbyists are bad. Lobbyists represent a coalition of people that are stakeholders of a body that is governing them. Simple freedom of speech and assembly. Some have more power and influence than others, some I agree with more than others, but that does not mean lobbying is bad. Lobbyists are needed to convey a group of people’s message.

What I do mean, is that the part time system we have for elected officials prevents a well-rounded discussion. Legislators and local elected officials need time for thoughtful consideration of all viewpoints to make an informed decision that is best for their constituents.

We no longer live in agrarian society where we must tend to the fields. I strongly believe that state and local governments need to be full time jobs and paid as such. In the meantime, sans that systemic reform, all we can do is mitigate the risk of corruption through ethics and campaign finance reform. Ethics reform didn’t happen this year, but I encourage everyone to get specific about what you want to see next time you talk to your legislators.

ATTN: Sen. Adam Ebbin, Sen. Barbara Favola, Sen. Janet Howell, Del. Patrick Hope, Del. Mark Levine, Del. Alfonso Lopez, and Del. Rip Sullivan.

Nicole Merlene is an Arlington native and former candidate for Virginia State Senate. She has served as a leader in the community on the boards of the Arlington County Civic Federation and North Rosslyn Civic Association, as an Arlington Economic Development commissioner, in neighborhood transportation planning groups, and as a civic liaison to the Rosslyn Business Improvement District.

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