Santa Clara University

Bookmark and Share

Her Honor

Judy Nadler, senior fellow in government ethics at the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics, looks at ethical dilemmas, scandals, and best practices in government.

The following postings have been filtered by category Civility. clear filter
  •  Handling Council Critics: Is The Customer Always Right?

    Friday, Jul. 29, 2011

    As a part of an on-going series of case studies in government ethics, summer intern Jason Wu wrote the following scenario about civility at council meetings. Discussion questions follow; we encourage your comments.

    As a four-term mayor of the city of Brookstone, Paul Mackey had done his best to manage the city’s budget over the years. Despite his efforts, he still found himself in the midst of an economic crisis. Many neighboring cities were undergoing drastic cutbacks to their programs, and Brookstone was no exception.

    Having proposed several unpopular options that would slash funding to city services, Mackey fielded phone calls every day from angry citizens who demanded a plan that would keep their favorite programs intact. The pressure was mounting upon Mackey to deliver something that would satisfy the public and be supported by the council. His patience was wearing thin.

    A few days prior to the next council meeting, Mackey had a long conversation with Joan Anderson, a vocal critic of his budget plans. That afternoon, Ms. Anderson filed a complaint with the police department saying that she had felt personally threatened by the mayor. “I asked Mr. Mackey how he could in good conscience consider cutting funding to our bookmobile, and he just snapped,” Anderson said.

    The complaint appeared in the local newspaper and led to an interview with the mayor. Mackey denied the allegation, and maintained that he had never shouted at a constituent “in all my years of service as a public official.”

    Because there was no evidence to back up either of their statements, the case was closed.

    However, Anderson remained determined to make her voice heard. She sent an email to the mayor that outlined her own budget plan, and she also invited him to meet for coffee and settle their differences. Mackey responded by writing, “Your comments are like those of a gadfly-you are never happy and you never have a solution but you always have lots of complaints.”

    Outraged by his reply and armed with copies of the email, Anderson filed a complaint with the city clerk and city manager claiming that Mackey had violated Brookstone’s Code of Ethics. Since Brookstone did not have an independent ethics commission to investigate potential violations, it was up to the council members to take action. The city clerk and city manager forwarded the copies of the email to the council members, and Anderson’s complaint was agendized for an upcoming city council meeting.

    At the meeting, Anderson pointed out that Brookstone’s Code of Ethics made it clear that officials had to act at all times with “respect, courtesy, and concern.” She added that the code also said that “officials who violate the Code of Ethics will be subject to disciplinary action, up to and including removal from office.”

    Emily Lam, the vice-mayor of Brookstone, proposed that the council submit the issue to the ethics subcommittee, which would review the incident. The other council members and the mayor agreed that this was the best course of action.

    Two weeks later, the ethics subcommittee delivered their report at a city council meeting. They recommended that the council issue a formal reprimand, which would amount to a slap on the wrist for Mackey. The mayor recused himself from the vote, and the other council members voted 4-0 in favor of the motion for a reprimand and tried to move on.

    However, Mackey was furious with the resolution. “We’re facing the biggest financial crisis in Brookstone’s history, and instead of dealing with it we’re just wasting our time on these petty complaints,” he said. Embarrassed by his outburst, the other council members were anxious to resolve the infighting and get back to the business of managing the budget shortfall.

    Discussion Questions:

    • How should the mayor and the council handle citizen complaints such as the one made by Ms. Anderson?
    • Is Mackey’s email really a violation of the Code of Ethics or is it simply part of the “rough and tumble” world of politics?
    • Is there a difference between a Code of Ethics and a Code of Conduct or Council Protocol?
    • What can the mayor and council do to restore civility in the conduct of council meetings and repair their relationships with each other?
    • What role, if any, does the city manager play in “keeping the peace”?
  •  Advice For Today: Let's Go Back To Basics

    Monday, Jun. 13, 2011

    “Politicians Behaving Well” was the best headline I’ve read in months.

    In his recent New York Times column, David Brooks takes us away from today’s salacious stories and reminds us of a time when discussions centered on good behavior rather than sex, lies, and Twitter exchanges.

    He quotes Edmund Burke’s definition of political excellence, including the notion of self respect, the ability to have educated and reflective conversations, and, “to be led to a guarded and regulated conduct, from a sense that you are considered as an instructor of your fellow citizens in their highest concerns…” 

    Quaint as these notions sound today, it is worth reflecting on what it means to be honest and honorable, to be an individual of integrity and moral courage, and to accept the responsibility as well as the honor of public service.

  •  Moderating Political Debate In The Media

    Friday, Oct. 22, 2010

    In today's environment, the news story that is published or aired is sometimes not as interesting as what follows under "reader/listener comments."

    Increasingly these anonymous remarks are turning into vile diatribes rather than thoughtful commentary, leading some news outlets to suspend or modify the comments option.

    Many of the postings appear in the form of irrelevant and nasty remarks about the subject of the story, the reporter, or the news outlet. Most are offensive due to racial, gender, or other types of slurs.

    While people in public life know they are subject to the "slings and arrows" of those who disagree or dislike them, some of these attacks are of a very personal nature, and are not appropriate in any context.

    This type of ranting does nothing to further civil discourse. Rather than cutting off comments, perhaps it would be helpful to have an on-line moderator to encourage the exchange of ideas, rather than killing them.



  •  How Do You Teach Civility?

    Thursday, Oct. 7, 2010

    When I tell people I do workshops on ethics in government, they often ask "How can you teach someone to be ethical?"

    That question probably comes up for the people at the Institute for Civility in Government, who offer "civility workshops" and trainings for organizations.They wll be featured at the upcoming National Conference of State Legislators meeting.

    The non-profit group "aims to build civility in a society that increasingly tilts towards uncivil speech and actions."

    While civility impacts all levels of society, the Institute focuses on government, believing that understanding the way we approach governing is as important as any positions we may take.

    The workshops are divided into four parts:

    • Know thyself/differences are enriching
    • Listen with your heart, mind and strength
    • Help comes from unexpected places
    • One is powerful, but numbers count

    Do you have any examples of the damage done by uncivil discourse? What techniques have you employed to create an open environment that fosters respect?

    Post your answers here, and help share the commitment to build a more civil society.

Subscribe by email

Enter your email address:

Delivered by FeedBurner