Santa Clara University

Markkula Center for Applied Ethics
 

Whom Do I Represent? Local and Regional Public Service

By Judy Nadler

When Councilwoman Elizabeth Collier was appointed by her council to represent the city of Franklin on the County Transit Board, she was looking forward to the experience. Living in a small hillside town of 8,000, she felt her knowledge and experiences would add balance to the 15-member board, especially to give voice to other smaller towns in the county. The perception of many member cities was that the board's decisions were weighted unfairly by the major urban city in the county, which had proportionally greater representation.

When the state transportation funds were allocated to the county, the options for spending went through standing committees, an advisory committee, and a policy advisory board for ranking. In each case, the project with the highest recommendation was for a high-speed rail line. This came as no surprise, considering the public outcry over traffic congestion and a series of newspaper articles and editorials supporting rail. But what concerned Councilwoman Collier was the low ranking given to expanding bicycle trails.

Councilwoman Collier favored an expansion of trails not only because her town would benefit from a recreational point of view, but also because the county as a whole stood to see more bicycle commuting if additional bike routes were developed. The trails, or paths, would benefit everyone and would support ongoing wellness programs.

The night before the transit board meeting, the city of Franklin passed a resolution opposing the high-speed rail as "a waste of taxpayers' money" and directed Collier to vote no on the funding. She shared with her colleagues the unanimous recommendation of the various committees, but could not dissuade them from taking a formal action.

During the public hearing, many spoke in favor of the board's proposed rankings, but members of the bicycling community had organized a support committee, gathering signatures from more than 200 individuals on a petition to put bike paths higher on the list.

As she listened to the public input and reviewed the staff and committee recommendations, Councilwoman Collier saw merit in allocating the money for rail, after reassurance that additional monies would be freed up in the coming year to expand the bike trails.

Questions:
  1. Should Councilwoman Collier vote as directed by her city council, even though she personally believes they were wrong in opposing the rail project?
  2. Is she relieved of her obligation to support her council's resolution since her decision was made after listening to public testimony at the transit board meeting?
  3. When sitting on the dais as a member of the transit board, whom does she represent?
  4. What are her ethical obligations to her council should she vote in favor of the high-speed rail motion?
Discussion:

When an individual is elected to the city council, there is always some question about voting for what he or she personally believes, or supporting the wishes of the majority of the electorate. Political and ethical leadership requires making difficult choices, sometimes unpopular with voters.

In this case, the councilwoman was instructed by council resolution to oppose the high-speed rail. However, when she entered the transit board meeting she took on the responsibilities of a transit board member. In this role, it is her job to consider the staff recommendations, listen to the public testimony, and make a decision that will be for the overall benefit of the county.

Councilwoman Collier can speak out at the meeting, expressing both her personal concerns as well as entering for the record the resolution passed by her city, but her higher obligation is to the transit board.

Judy Nadler is senior fellow in government ethics at the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics. She wrote this case with support from LifeScan, a Johnson & Johnson.

December 2009

 
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