Tuesday, August 30, 2005

Ethics And The Metro Council: Banning Meals-For-Deals Is An Appropriate First Step, But Only The First

September is upon us. That means it's time for the Metro Council to consider the question of ethics that they deferred at the end of June because the majority of them wanted to focus singularly on the budget rather than to multitask and to pass meaningful ethics legislation sooner rather than later. Unless they vote to defer it again, they are going to have to so something with their own Ethics Task Force's recommendations.

The first step at least 21 of them appear willing to take is to ban business and other private associations from providing their meals on Council nights. Unlike the current Council practice of accepting gifts over $25.00 without publicly reporting those gifts, the free meal program is not a huge influence-peddling mechanism. One free dinner from Group X is not nearly the same as accepting free Titans game tickets from Group Y's Personal Seat License or Season Suite arrangement. Therefore, the biggest ethics test for the Council is not this one. The biggest one is down the road: Council-at-Large member David Briley's bill requiring the Council's public accountability on gifts over $25.00.

In the meantime, I endorse the current bill that would ban free meals from private groups. It is an appropriate first step that at least indicates that members are willing to appear above reproach. I am disappointed to see that groups with whom I am sympathetic--like the Arts Commission, neighborhood associations, the education association, and Tying Nashville Together--chose to participate in the meal-for-deals program. I understand the logic of tapping into power networks, but the propriety of the tap-lines should have been questioned. Rather than raising red flags and asking hard questions, many groups just went along for the ride.

Having said that, I hasten to add that banning meals-for-deals does not go far enough as an ethical corrective. The Ethics Task Force did not even bother with it, because it represents such a piddling amount of money compared to unreported gifts to Council members. I hope that Council members Michael Craddock and John Summers and the other 21 sponsors of this bill aren't using it as a bone thrown out to us so that they can say they voted for meaningful ethics reform, while at the same time they both riddle Council member Briley's ethics bill and decimate the recommendations of the Ethics Task Force. Council member Charlie Tygard's resolution to defer ethics discussions to September was not a hopeful sign in June; even so, let's hope the meals-for-deals ban is a portent of important reform to come, rather than simply window dressing to cover the unchecked flow of gifts to Council members.

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