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 Ethics Codes. clear filter
  •  Independent Group Files Ethics Complaint

    Thursday, Dec. 20, 2012

    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.

  •  Old Guard Versus New Guard: Bridging The Gap

    Tuesday, Sep. 27, 2011

    This fictional case illustrates some of the challenges facing newly appointed city managers. We welcome your comments and observations.

    After serving 25 years as a quiet and low-key city manager of Longworth, Anthony McNerney decided it was time to retire. Under his stewardship the city had grown to 17,000, and he was especially proud that despite the inevitable changes that came over time, the city still retained a small-town feeling, an old-fashioned Main Street, and “the friendliest people in the state.”

    During his tenure, the five-member city council had almost always been in agreement, and they endorsed virtually all of his recommendations. Few people attended the council meetings because they were, as one councilmember said, “short and sweet, and no political heat.”

    In deciding how to replace McNerney the council called upon the state municipal league for recommendations. The council interviewed six candidates to serve as interim city manager, and chose Greg Holman. A recent graduate in public policy from a prestigious university, he had served as a deputy city manager for two years before moving to a larger city to become assistant city manager. He was now hoping to be selected to the top job in Longworth.

    Holman not only had impressive credentials, but he was also well-connected with managers in other cities and had a reputation for involving the community in the decision-making process. He went out of his way to visit local businesses, held two “open office” receptions to meet the public, and scheduled one-on-one sessions for the top administrators. It was clear he had made a positive connection with the city council, so after just four months, he was unanimously appointed city manager.

    His energy and enthusiasm was a boost to the community. The president of the Chamber of Commerce called him “a breath of fresh air,” and an editorial in the local newspaper predicted Holman would take the city “to the next level.” The editor highlighted the need to move “into this century” and to praised the council for choosing a city manager who would organize, streamline, and energize the city.

    As he went about studying various city policies, Holman found a document marked “city manager’s suggestions, ” but he could not find a formal code of ethics. After checking with the city attorney he learned the council was under the general oversight of the state ethics commission, as were all the cities in the state. But it concerned him that there were no formal rules for the employees; they were to use “common sense” when making decisions.

    His worry grew after reading files pertaining to gifts and free tickets received by the employees, unauthorized use of city equipment, and a host of other actions that would be considered ethics violations, putting the council and employees at risk. It became obvious that the pattern was to “look the other way,” a policy Holman was determined to change.

    After outlining his concern about the lack of an ethics code and suggesting this be a priority project, several department leaders decided to retire rather than take on this initiative. “I’ve worked here 17 years,” said planning director Gail Shepherd, “and I just don’t have the energy to take on anything new.” Several others senior employees, including the city attorney also opted for retirement. “Call me old-fashioned,” the city auditor joked, “but I like things just the way they are.”

    There was some apprehension when Holman brought in replacement staff, all equally enthusiastic about the goal of creating a values-based code of ethics for Longworth . The majority of city employees decided to wait before making a judgment, yet the council remained solidly behind Holman and excited about the ethics project.

    A year into his “honeymoon” period Holman got the shock of his life – former city manager McNerney decided to run for an open seat on the council, with the intention of returning things in Longworth “back to normal.” McNerney bragged that everything done under his leadership was positive, and all the changes Holman had implemented he criticized as “ruining a perfectly good city.” His campaign slogan was “Don’t fix it if it isn’t broken.”

    The city council and staff found themselves torn – they felt loyalty to and affection for McNerney, but optimism and confidence in the direction of Holman and his new team.

    McNerney won in an uncontested election, and was determined to undo some administrative changes and take control of the council majority. Holman had to come up with a strategy that could bridge the old and the new, while keeping a positive work environment and satisfied citizens. He was determined to create an ethics code, but he also needed to find a way to keep his job.

    Discussion questions:

    How should Holman approach McNerney now that he is a member of the city council?

    What should Holman do in light of the harsh criticism leveled against him during the campaign?Should he ignore it or try to address some of the disparaging accusations?

    Would it be appropriate for Holman to ask the former city manager for clarification of the troubling policies or would this create more problems?

    How can Holman smooth things over after the election, preventing McNerney from being an obstacle and bridging the gap between the two camps?

    Would it be worthwhile to hire an outside consultant specializing in team building and goal setting?

  •  What "Wood" You Do?

    Friday, Sep. 9, 2011

    When off-duty firefighters in North Bend, Oregon cut down 25 alder trees in February, Fire Chief Scott Graham said he thought the firefighters could take the wood, and he could help himself to some as well.

    But the Oregon Government Ethics Commission has reprimanded Graham, saying he should have known he could not take them for personal use.

    “Every public official in the state of Oregon is required to adhere to ethics laws,” according to Ron Bersin, executive director of the commission. “One of those laws is that you are not able to financially gain from your position. He was using fire department equipment and city trees and he was going to burn the wood at his home.”

    A retired Coos Bay firefighter blew the whistle when he saw the city firewood stacked against the chief’s house. “He had so much wood you couldn’t see the roof of his house.”

    The sanction, rather than a fine, was recommended because he had not yet burned the wood. A part of the stipulation is that the wood be donated to an agency serving individuals with mental illnesses.

    Chief Graham said the whole episode “basically boiled down to miscommunication.”

    Discussion questions.

    Please post your thoughts in our comment section.

    • Does it matter that the firefighters were off duty when they did the work?

    • There was no mention in the news story on whether or not the firefighters took any wood. If they did, how should their case be treated?

    • How should the chief handle this within the fire department?

    • What role, if any, should the mayor or city manager play in addressing ethics laws?

    • What do you think the best outcome could be in this situation?

  •  Ethics Commission Suspends Investigations

    Friday, Oct. 22, 2010

    Don't bother to file an ethics complaint with the City of Baytown, Texas. At least not until January 1, 2011, when the city will resume operation of its ethics commission.

    The hiatis took effect October 14, at the recommendation of outside counsel assisting the city in investigating a complaint. The attorneys are recommending some changes to improve the workings of the commission, and suggested a moratorium on complaints until the changes could be put into place.

    A brief break in the workings of the commission should not cause concern as long as everyone realizes there is no moratorium on ethics violations. Changes should be made with input from the public, but community outreach should not draw out the process. The sooner the commission is up and running, the better,

  •  What Is The Best Way To Enforce Ethics Rules?

    Tuesday, Oct. 19, 2010

    Praise or punishment? Which works best when monitoring an employee's ethical behavior?

    That is the question I asked a group of visiting Chinese government workers who came to California to learn about ethics in government. It was apparent from their questions that strict rules are followed primarily because of the fear of punishment. In fact, many of their questions were about how to monitor employee behavior and how to enforce laws and rules.

    In one case, they said it was illegal for a city employee to use his equipment and time to trim the tree of a resident. Yet, when asked if they would apply that same standard if the individual was an 85-year-old woman they were unanimous in saying "no!" In fact, they said they would be praised for helping a senior citizen, even if it was against the rules to use city time or equipment for non-city business.

    This led to a discussion of the "slippery slope." If you are willing to make an exception for the senior citizen, what other exceptions would you be willing to make? Would you also be "praised" if you connected this resident to a non-profit that assists seniors in upkeep of their homes and yards?

    Understanding the values associated with ethics laws is critical. There are never going to be enough laws passed to address every ethical dilemma. It is important to think through each situation, and when necessary, exceed the letter of the law and uphold the values.


Subscribe by email

Enter your email address:

Delivered by FeedBurner