June 26, 2009
Anyone who has been to a karaoke bar or watched the first episode of an "American Idol" season knows all too well that some people are simply tone deaf. Colorado Springs residents are getting that feeling as they follow the coverage of the Independent Ethics Commission's investigation into conflict-of-interest allegations against Mayor Lionel Rivera regarding the deal between the city, the Unites States Olympic Committee and local developer Ray Marshall.
The mayor has been largely silent on the matter, citing the investment industry's confidentiality rules. What Rivera has said seems to indicate that he's unable to see the situation from the viewpoint of people without insider knowledge. Many of those folks believe his protestations of innocence are naïve at best. He seems to forget the adage that in politics, perception is reality. In this case, the perception is that someone who has had business dealings with a developer should not have been involved in discussions involving that developer and the city. That looks like a conflict of interest.
Members of the Ethics Commission also seem to be politically tone deaf. One member of the commission, Jan Doran, is a long-time supporter of Rivera, active in his campaign for U.S. House of Representatives and his mayoral re-election bid. When the media revealed her connection to Rivera, Doran said that despite her support of the mayor she could remain objective. That might have been true, but again, perception is reality, and it was difficult for many Springs resident to believe Doran could be impartial. She later recused herself from the investigation, a good move for all concerned.
The latest example of this tone deafness was last week's announcement by the remaining members of the Ethics Commission that when the investigation is complete, its findings will be kept secret. Here's a note that should ring clearly to the commission: results of an ethics investigation of a public servant should be broadcast far and wide so the people can know what officials are up to.
The commission said in a letter to City Council, "Once the commission has completed its interviews of witnesses and review of documents, it will issue a confidential written recommendation to the City Council." There might be good reasons for the ethics panel to maintain its silence until the council has a chance to read and act on the results of the investigation. But if the idea of public accountability is to have any meaning, the full results of the investigation and the commission's recommendations must be released to the public. Anything less would be an insult to the people and unfair to Rivera, especially in the event no conflict is found. If the panel's work clears Rivera but the results are kept from public scrutiny, there will always be the suspicion of a cover up.
The purpose of an ethics panel is to keep public officials on the straight-and-narrow.
Keeping the results of an investigation secret flies in the face of the process that helps the people hold officials accountable for their actions. Any and all findings and recommendations must be made public if the people are to have any confidence in the system. Our government relies on accountability of elected officials to the people who elected them. Without accountability, the whole system is less reliable as a way for the people to govern themselves. And self-governance is what this nation was founded on.