Central Falls Moves Forward on Ethics; Senate Compromise on Ethics Commission Remains Elusive

Feb 21, 2013

Diossa pledged as a candidate to bolster ethics in Central Falls.
Credit Ian Donnis / RIPR

The tiny city of Central Falls  is moving ahead Thursday evening with what is considered one of the toughest ethics reforms for a small municipality in the country,  even as efforts to restore state Ethics Commission oversight of the General Assembly continue to languish.

Mayor James Diossa is slated to sign the ordinance into law during a 5:30 pm ceremony in his office. He pledged as a candidate to establish a comprehensive set of ethics reforms. In a news release, Diossa says the ordinance focuses on four areas:

  1. Creating a city ethics code.  This ordinance creates a city ethics code that holds city officials and employees responsible for high ethical conduct, prohibits no-show jobs and empowers the city solicitor to enforce the code as the city ethics integrity officer.
  2. Requiring lobbyist disclosure.  The public has the right to know who are the paid lobbyists who are lobbying their government and this ordinance requires lobbyists to register with the city clerk.
  3. Pay-to-Play prohibited. This ordinance prohibits no-bid contracts from going to any entity that contributes more than $300 to any political candidate in the city.  If this provision had been in effect earlier, no-bid contracts would not have been permitted to be awarded to Michael Bouthillette who - according to prosecutors, boarded up at least 167 homes between 2007 and 2009 and during the same time period made nearly $3,000 in campaign contributions to the sitting Mayor.
  4. Honorable Service required for Pension.  This ordinance prevents employees and officials from receiving a city pension if they have dishonorably served the city.

This development is noteworthy in a state marked by periodic outbreaks of corruption. It's all the more so considering some of the talking points that have emerged from apologists for former mayor Charles Moreau and notions of situational ethics. Yet there are also some interesting subtleties to Diossa's initiative that might easily be overlooked:

-- With former Moreau loyalists on the city council opposing Diossa's effort to move Central Falls from receivership, Receiver John McJennett acted as the city council by approving the new ethics ordinance earlier this month.

-- In a display of how old and new elements can work together, former mayor Tom Lazieh and former finance director Edna Poulin were active participants in the drafting of the new ethics reform, taking part in a February 7 workshop.

-- The solicitor in Central Falls, Richard Kirby, is a former state Ethics Commission member who was part of a controversial 5-4 vote in 2000 to gut a gift ban for public officials. That set the stage for a broader meltdown that took years to overcome. Now, though, Kirby is seen as having made valuable contributions to the ethics overhaul in Central Falls.

-- Diossa and Providence Mayor Angel Taveras, Rhode Island's first two Latino mayors, have placed an emphasis on ethical standards in public office.

Meanwhile, it remains anyone's guess when and if the state Senate will address its concerns about the Ethics Commission while restoring the panel's oversight of the General Assembly.