Judy Nadler, senior fellow in government ethics at the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics, looks at ethical dilemmas, scandals, and best practices in government.
Thursday, Mar. 21, 2013 3:54 PM
Five of six former Bell, California councilmembers were found guilty of stealing millions of dollars from the city, the latest chapter in a story that triggered an investigation of local government salaries across the country.
Although there are only 35,000 residents in the southern California city, the former mayor and council drew an annual salary of $100,000 by creating and serving on various boards and authorities that were found to be a “front” for exceeding the city charter’s salary limit of $8,076.
Their justification is one heard frequently from public officials: we work hard, spend long hours, and often spend nights and weekends conducting duties as city councilmembers. While this may be true, these excuses cannot justify taking more than $1.3 million for their part-time positions.
Perhaps the worst blow to the city and to local government was the outrageous and illegal activities of the former city manager, Robert Rizzo. His salary of $800,000 (double the salary of President Obama) made him not only rich but also powerful. Testimony from city employees highlighted the fear they felt in disobeying his orders.
In fact, the city clerk testified in the trial that she “signed minutes of meetings she never attended and that she was ordered to provide false salaries to a resident who made a public records request.” Rizzo and his assistant Angela Spaccia, will face a jury in the coming months.
While residents expressed relief at the verdicts, the story is far from over. Not only does the city need to regain public trust, the rest of the cities across the state and the nation must pay close attention to this cautionary tale, and ensure that checks and balances are in place to avoid corruption.
Monday, Mar. 18, 2013 3:48 PM
Using a 10-point “transparency checklist,” Sunshine Review has awarded the City of Phoenix it’s “Sunny Award” for outstanding transparency on a local government website.
They city’s phoenix.gov site has won the award for the past four years, and is one of only 247 state and local government organizations to earn the accolade. More than 1,000 qualified sites were reviewed by the non-profit organization that dedicates its work to local and state government transparency.
The Phoenix website ranked high for information on budget, taxes, elected officials, audit reports, public meetings, public records, and building and zoning. Vice Mayor Bill Gates was proud of the accomplishment. “It is great to once again have this third-party acknowledgement that the city’s website continues to offer residents a clear view inside City Hall.”
Michael Barnhart, president of Sunshine Review, says the award-winning government websites “empowers citizens and keeps government accountable to the people.”
Tuesday, Feb. 26, 2013 3:59 PM
“Quid pro quo never comes without a price.”
This comment, posted on the Orange County Register by reader Theresa Santoro, summarizes the ethical problems that can occur when business and corporate interests host an event for public officials.
According to the newspaper, the annual conference of the Coalition for Adequate School Housing (C.A.S.H) brings together corporations and employees of 500 school districts. “Bankers, lawyers, architects and companies hoping to profit from school construction are spending hundreds of thousands of dollars this week to court public education officials at a three-day gathering in Sacramento.” Some of the workshops deal with how to pass bond issues for new school construction.
How can the school’s decision makers be objective after enjoying meals, cocktail receptions, and rounds of golf (including a gift bag and “high quality golf shirt” paid for by the sponsors of the meeting)?
Tracy Westen, formerly of the Center for Governmental Studies in Los Angeles, said there is “a danger that the company that has handed out money will be looked at more favorably” when it comes to awarding contracts.
Santoro’s comments illustrate the fundamental issues of conflicts of interest: “Builders should not be allowed to endorse those running for school boards, and school boards should not be allowed to take fancy trips and be wined and dined by builders and bankers. It all starts with a nice free glass of Chardonnay on a golf course.”
Tuesday, Feb. 19, 2013 3:53 PM
Although the Augusta, Georgia ethics code says it is illegal, at least one commissioner has confirmed his company has been a subcontractor on a city project.
“The amount of money is not that much (that) we make for profit,” says Commissioner Wayne Guilfoyle. His tile company did work at the airport--$70,000 worth of work -- in direct violation of the city’s code of ethics. “The bidding process started before I came on board,” he explained. “I didn’t hide anything from the media or any one of my colleagues. I abstained on every issue.”
The code states clearly “It shall be unethical for any Augusta-Richmond County Employee or public official to transact in an business or participate directly or indirectly in a procurement contract.”
Commissioner Alvin Mason responded by saying, “There shouldn’t be a single commissioner up here benefiting directly or indirectly dealing with government dollars.” There may be others who are also working for the city, according to the report by the television station WRDW. The commissioners are responsible for deciding how to deal with the violations.
- Is it enough to recuse yourself from a vote when your company is benefiting from a public contract?
- What action do you think the commissioners should take?
Thursday, Feb. 14, 2013 11:27 AM
How much information is necessary to include on a parking ticket?
In Palatine, Illinois, the ticket slipped under the windshield wiper contains more than just the nature of the violation. It also includes such personal information as your address, driver’s license number, date of birth, sex, height, and weight. Tickets also spell out the details of the infraction: location of the vehicle, make, year and VIN number, as well as the license plate number and expiration date.
When Jason Senne returned to his car to find the parking citation he was outraged. Five hours had passed since the slip of paper was placed on his car, and in a class action complaint against the town, he says it violated the “Driver’s Privacy Protection Act by leaving the ticket on his car after printing his personal information on it.”
Senne estimates Palatine issued more than 8,000 tickets over the past four years, pushing the damages request to upwards of $80 million. He is also seeking “punitive damages, attorney’s fees, costs and equitable relief.”
A federal judge dismissed the case, and an appeals court panel agreed that the “disclosure” was permissible under the law. But when the full circuit court of appeals reversed that decision, they indicated, “any information on the ticket not necessary to process it was a violation of federal law.”
The argument in favor of the practice is that there is no indication that anyone has ever used the personal information and that the ruling is “unlikely to do any good,” and is “bound to do harm.” The court has expressed concern that “the floodgates of class action litigation will open across the country” should the appeals court decision be upheld. The U.S. Supreme Court is considering whether or not to take the case.
What do you think?
Should local police agencies be allowed to include detailed information from the state motor vehicles records on documents like parking tickets?
Does the benefit outweigh the risk?
Monday, Jan. 7, 2013 4:08 PM
Every penny counts, especially when it belongs to taxpayers.
That’s why the Arizona Republic has written a series of stories about money council members are spending on items ranging from monogrammed shirts to candy for a parade.
In reviewing the “discretionary funds” in 10 Arizona cities, the paper discovered “$1.2 million in taxpayer funds for meals, travel, construction projects, iPads, and other items." While the money is sometimes used to support office-holder expenses such as appreciation plaques and picture frames, the proponents say the accounts also come in handy for supporting charities and to pay for lobbying trips. In one case a councilwoman used $18,138 from her discretionary funds to “pave a quarter-mile-long, dead-end neighborhood street.”
What do you think?
Read more about how individuals are spending public funds and post your comments here.
Thursday, Dec. 20, 2012 4:57 PM
A Georgia councilmember who wore his name badge while testifying at another city’s council meeting is facing ethics charges for violating a section of the code of ethics by seeking to “secure special privileges and exemptions for others."
Snellville councilmember Mike Sabbagh is the subject of a complaint by Gwinette Ethics, Inc., an organization that describes itself as “a non-profit corporation composed of local citizens who are dedicated to exposing ethics lapses both in government, and in organizations that clog our county’s judicial system with capricious and baseless lawsuits and complaints.” Both cities are located in Gwinette County.
The group alleges that Sabbagh appeared before the Marietta, Georgia city council in October 2011 on behalf of a friend who had an item pending. Sabbagh urged the council to work with his friend to allow the completion of a controversial building. In January 2012 the Snellville council investigated the ethics of the appearance, and tabled the matter after Sabbagh apologized. “I was simply trying to convince the city of Marietta to allow the owner of the building some extra time, as the economy was hard," Sabbagh told Snellville Patch. "I didn’t go in there as an authority figure, I went in there as a citizen. They knew who I was."
What do you think? Did Sabbagh cross the line by appearing with his name badge? The Snellville city council has already dealt with this issue. What should they do with this complaint?
Post your comments here.
Tuesday, Dec. 18, 2012 4:57 PM
The San Antonio Ethics Review Board has ruled that taking free or discounted tickets to a hotel is a violation that should be investigated by law enforcement.
According to board chair Arthur Downey, current and former city employees accepted rooms at the Grand Hyatt Hotel – rooms known as the Alamodome suites, that are valued at $900. While the individuals were disciplined in July, there were no criminal charges filed. The district attorney has confirmed an investigation is under way.
The Ethics Review Board took action in response to a citizen’s complaint—not about the hotel rooms per se, but because the city didn’t take any action when the information was made public.
Michael Cuellar, the complainant, was also concerned that city manager Sheryl Sculley didn’t follow an administrative directive that requires an independent audit or outside investigation in cases such as this.
The city’s Office of Municipal Integrity initially investigated the case, and the publicity surrounding the results prompted the district attorney’s office to begin a preliminary inquiry before the Ethics Review Board met.
Thursday, Nov. 29, 2012 12:54 PM
Why run for office if you don’t plan to serve?
That is the question I asked when I read about a journalist who launched a write-in campaign for school board -- and won. When South Jersey Times online editor Jim Cook, Jr. “half-jokingly” asked his friends through Facebook to write him in for a position on the local school board, he said it was because he found out that only one candidate had filed. He used Facebook and Twitter in a 24-hour period before the election, and only after winning did he realize that he would have to resign his newspaper job in order to serve on the school board.
I have read and re-read this story and I’m still baffled. How could he not understand that he would have a conflict of interest if he took office? Did he think running for office was a “lark” that would have no consequences for the voters or the other candidates? And how could he be so glib in his response to the voters: “I hope I haven’t let you down, and I’m sorry I cannot accept this position. I can, however, throw a victory party. And you’re all invited.”
It is even more distressing to hear his rationale. “I wish I could (take the position), but I have to take the ethical route here and make the best decision for my career and the South Jersey Times – a job and company too close to my heart to put in jeopardy.” What about what is best for the voters?
The story ran on Jim Romenesko.com, a blog about media, so most of the comments are from reporters and editors. I want to know what you think. Did he do anything unethical in running for school board? In resigning just after winning? Post your comments here.
Tuesday, Nov. 27, 2012 10:51 AM
When the Arizona Republic began looking into the thousands of pages of records filed with the Arizona State Board for Charter Schools, they uncovered contracts and arrangements “in which money from the non-profit charter school went to for-profit or non-profit companies run by board members, executives, or their relatives.”
According to the investigation done by the newspaper, the deals were worth more than $70 million dollars and covered transactions dating back five years. And while school districts in the state must follow strict purchasing laws, designed to make sure bidders offer the best price and quality in their products. Charter schools are largely exempt, leading some to make purchases that appear to create conflicts of interest.
Read the entire story here, and be sure to leave your comments.
Tuesday, Nov. 6, 2012 4:43 PM
In this new case study, the mayor is soliciting donations from the community for the annual Thanksgiving food drive. He is also interested in “fast-tracking” the zoning application of a warehouse store, knowing they are likely to make the largest donation to the food bank.
Read the case here, and share your comments on the blog.
Tuesday, Nov. 6, 2012 4:30 PM
Voting by absentee ballot has been a growing trend in recent years, but there is one important question some election officers are asking about these votes: do they count if the voter mails the ballot but dies before election day?
The validity of these ballots varies from state to state, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL). In Colorado, Hawaii, Indiana, Illinois, New Jersey, and South Dakota, state statutes say these votes should not be counted. But in Montana and Louisiana, the legislature reasons that if an individual took the time to vote before Election Day, his or her vote should count.
So while some controversy about elections centers around the validity of electronic voting machines and “hanging chads,” a more fundamental question is: once the signed envelope has been opened, how can you identify the voter? It is unlikely that the poll workers will be checking the signed envelopes against the obituaries, and death records are often not official for weeks.
As the NCSL blog notes, “Unlike many election questions, this one does not have a partisan edge. Death makes no distinction between Democrats, Republicans and independents as they cast their absentee ballots.”
What do you think?
Should this so-called “voting from the grave” be legal?
Is it ethical?
Leave your comments here.
Tuesday, Oct. 23, 2012 1:27 PM
There should be an adage for public figures: “there is no such thing as a free ride.”
Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper recently accepted a Chrysler Ram 1500 plug-in hybrid pickup truck from officials at Tri-State Generation, a utility company. His only obligation is to keep track of mileage and maintenance, and allow Chrysler to interview divers who use the vehicle.
The Colorado Independent Ethics Commission ruled the gift was offered to the governor’s office, not the governor, so it does not violate the state’s gift ban. In the advisory opinion, the commission provided what I think is good reason for him to decline the offer of the vehicle.
“The commission is concerned about the appearance of impropriety that could arise in the context of this arrangement. Tri-State is a high-profile business in the state that is active in public policy, including robust representation in administrative proceedings ad at the legislature.”
Hickenlooper’s office argues the transparency of the contract should avoid any appearance of impropriety, but I doubt the public is focusing on the contract. What they see is the state’s top elected official getting a free ride and appearing to endorse a product – a troubling perception for taxpayers and a slippery slope for the governor.
Tuesday, Oct. 16, 2012 4:07 PM
An experienced officeholder knows it is illegal to use a city-owned phone for personal or political calls, so I found it difficult to believe that Lubbock, Texas Councilman Victor Hernandez didn’t think using a city-owned iPad for political messages was wrong.
The councilman, an attorney who has spent 20 years in public service, regularly uses the device to post on Facebook, delivering messages and photos to his 1,200 “friends.” A complaint was filed with the council and city manager after Hernandez used the iPad to post political and partisan messages. The city pays $37 per month for his data service, and an additional $90 or so in monthly stipends for the cell phone.
According to the Lubbock Avalanche-Journal, Hernandez sees nothing unethical with his Facebook posts. In an email to the city attorney, Hernandez asked, “I use the iPad for my law practice, personal use, political use and city business. Is there a problem here from the city’s perspective?”
I don’t know what the city attorney will say, and the councilman says he’ll stop posting partisan messages “pending legal advice.” The city’s code of ethics does not specifically mention use of city property for political purposes – but it should. The Texas Ethics Commission, in an earlier advisory opinion, says use of this type by state employees would be a “misuse of government property.”
In a business environment this kind of "spillover" between work and personal use of technology may not be an issue. But in the public sector, there are important reasons to separate the two. One is fairness: using technology paid for by the voters gives an advantage to an incumbent who is not paying for getting out a message.
The practice is also a problem because it could lead to elected officials using other types of public property-- such as automobiles --for personal use.
Tuesday, Oct. 16, 2012 2:46 PM
Recognizing the behavior of a few can damage the reputation of an entire department, the Cumberland Valley Volunteer Firemen’s Association created a “National Firefighters Code of Ethics.”
The National Fire Academy (NFA) in Maryland has adopted that document, and copies are hung in every classroom building. The information is in all NFA student manuals and eventually, will be in all textbooks utilized at colleges and universities where accredited fire-related courses are taught.
A special Web site, www.Firefighterbehavior.com, includes information on the history of the document, and notes that Facebook posts, off-duty behavior, and the problems in the personal lives of firefighters can give the public the impression that “all” individuals in the fire service engage in questionable behavior. This misconception is "eroding the high moral ground" of the fire service, and may tarnish the reputation of a well-respected institution.
Monday, Oct. 15, 2012 4:54 PM
“The reason an ethics board is so important is that it helps keep city officials honest, not just with city residents but with themselves. It can be easy for a city employee or elected official to internally justify an action that others might consider a conflict of interest or stepping over an ethical line.”
This observation, made in an editorial in the The Citizen, an Auburn, New York newspaper, is one of the best descriptions of the purpose of an ethics board. The comments were written to encourage the Auburn City Council to move swiftly to appoint members to its ethics board. According to the paper, the council embraced restructuring the board, which had been dormant since the 1990s. That vote was taken in January, but as the editorial points out, no action has been taken since then.
“This board could help provide guidance to city officials before they act. And of course when evidence surfaces that an ethical violation has taken place, having this board available to look into it would be a vital resource.”
Good advice for Auburn, and for any other jurisdiction with a languishing ethics board.
Thursday, Oct. 11, 2012 12:30 PM
Beware who “friends” you on Facebook. Two Kansas legislative candidates found out the consequences of being “friended” by lobbyists: both were fined $100 by the state’s Governmental Ethics Commission.
“It’s the first time we’ve had a social media question,” according to Carol Williams, the executive director of the commission. “I think with the explosion of social media, this is something we’ll see far more.”
The posts were about fundraising events, a violation of the anti-solicitation laws of the state. One candidate, in defending the post, said although he listed the barbecue as a fundraiser, he didn’t give the location, or “specifically ask for money.” He said he was merely trying to find out how much food he would need.
The other candidate included a link to donate to her campaign on her Facebook page, but removed it upon hearing from the commission. She admits she “doesn’t know the occupations of all her Facebook ‘friends’ and hasn’t met some of them.”
Questions for discussion:
• As a public official, should you accept a “friend” request without knowing the individual or his or her occupation?
• Should candidates and officeholders keep separate Facebook accounts – family and friends in one, political activities and contacts in another?
• Do you think the individuals in this situation should have been fined?
Monday, Oct. 1, 2012 4:18 PM
Are there any “shortcuts” to more ethical behavior? That is the question posed in a recent New York Times column by Alina Tugend.
In it, she offers perspectives on “doing the right thing, whatever that is,” and uses the Markkula Center framework on ethical decision making to illustrate the kinds of questions one can ask when wrestling with an ethical dilemma.
Do you have any “formula” for making decisions when faced with competing and compelling arguments? What do you do when you realize the decision is not about right and wrong but about right and right? Share your thoughts here.
Thursday, Sep. 20, 2012 1:49 PM
Some days it can be depressing to be in public service. The economic picture is bleak, headlines are not always kind, and stories of corruption seem to dominate the news. But there is hope – in the students of our colleges and universities.
This week I spoke with a class at the Goldman School of Public Policy at the University of California in Berkeley. These students, pursuing masters in public policy and doctoral degrees, are passionate about a cross-section of our most pressing problems: education, fiscal reform, health care policy, environmental issues, the criminal justice system, and more.
My session was one of several I do each year—for Dr. David Kirp’s class in Berkeley, for Governor Michael Dukakis when he teaches at UCLA, and for undergraduate classes here at Santa Clara University. In November I will be talking about government ethics at Yeshiva University in New York.
My purpose is two-fold. First, to share with students the practical side of public life – what is like to run for office, face and think through ethical dilemmas, build a culture of ethics in an organization, and enhance public trust.
The second reason is more personal. I enjoy the intellectual curiosity, the stimulating questions, and the hint of skepticism. But most of all, I love to look at each and every one of these students and imagine a mayor, city manager, policy advisor, governor – maybe one might even go into government ethics.
The future is in the hands of our students, and they provide both the hope and inspiration that keeps me so committed to good government.
Tuesday, Sep. 18, 2012 5:10 PM
“Don’t forget to get a flu shot.”
This time of the year physicians, pharmacies, schools, nursing homes, and hospitals are among those calling for certain populations to get a flu shot. So it was disappointing to learn that this simple and effective way of preventing flu has been called “really demeaning and insulting to people’s intelligence.”
That quote, from the president of the California Nurses Association is in response to a new mandate that requires health care workers in Contra Costa and Santa Clara counties to get flu shots or wear a mask at work the entire flu season. Those regulations are already in effect in San Francisco and Sacramento counties, and Alameda county has the proposal under consideration.
“This is really to protect the most frail, and persons at highest risks,” said Dr. Marty Fenstersheib, health officer for Santa Clara county. He says the move, mandated for all employees who are in contact with patients in hospitals, clinics, ambulance companies, adult day health centers, nursing homes and other health facilities, is necessary. “The vaccine compliance rates in health care workers are just too low.”
Dr. Margaret McLean, director of bioethics at the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics said, “Getting the flu vaccine or wearing a mask is a common sense way to fulfill the professional obligation to do no harm.” Additional information, including “An Ethical Analysis of Preventing the Spread of Seasonal Influenza” is available on the Center’s website.