The D.C. Council plans to consider emergency legislation Tuesday that would grant the District's ethics board the power to dish out nonpublic admonishments.
That penalty, one of a number of new options that would be made available to the board, could even be applied to District Council members.
"It would give the board greater flexibility and much needed flexibility in administering sanctions for violations of the code conduct," said Darrin Sobin, the District's director of government ethics.
The informal, nonpublic admonishment for city workers could be applied to very minor infractions, Sobin said. For example, he said, if a government employee used an office computer to scan a child's homework assignment, that might warrant the nonpublic admonishment from the Board of Ethics and Government Accountability, whose members are selected by the mayor.
"If it's used right, a nonpublic, informational letter can be useful. But it also can be misused," said Robert Wechsler, director of research at City Ethics Inc. "I don't think it's quite proper for a board that's not independently selected to be seen resolving a matter in a way that's not public."
Sobin said he plans to release versions of the private admonishments that have the city employee's name redacted.
The emergency legislation submitted by Ward 5 Councilman Kenyan McDuffie is expected to be considered during Tuesday's council meeting. He said the bill will help fill a gap until the council can pass permanent legislation.
He said he believed that the nonpublic admonishments would not be applied to council members.
"It will only used in the most insignificant types of cases," he said.
The legislation, which requires the support of two-thirds of the Council, gives the ethics board the power to take remedial action, impose public censure, place someone on probation and to offer a negotiated disposition. The board already has the power to levy fines.
Emergency legislation only lasts for 90 days and does not require a public hearing, but it can move through the Council more swiftly.
"If we don't get this, we'll be stuck with just the fines and that will really gum up the works," said Sobin, who said that the new options could be applied to already ongoing investigations.
Councilman David Grosso said he planned to support the legislation but would continue to scrutinize its provisions before endorsing permanently amending the ethics board's disciplinary options.
"We will have time to review this law as it moves into the permanent level," Grosso said, adding that he would be careful to monitor the number of nonpublic admonishments.
The legislation will also clarify that the board has the power to initiate advisory opinions on its own, independent of the council.