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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.

  •  LA Mayor Fined By Ethics Agency

    Tuesday, Apr. 5, 2011

    There is no such thing as a free lunch, and the mayor of Los Angeles has learned that under California ethics laws there can be no free basketball games, concerts, or seats at the Academy Awards.Commission levied nearly $42,000 in fines to Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, the largest fine of its kind. Records show the mayor had failed to report free tickets to events ranging from the American Idol Finale, Los Angeles Lakers games, and numerous concerts.

    The case illustrates two different interpretations of attending an event in an official capacity. The mayor insisted he was not in violation of the gifts laws because he was performing ceremonial duties. FPPC Executive Director Roman Porter says there may be an occasion when an elected official is performing “some type of official activity. But it didn’t rise to the level of a ceremonial duty.”

    The fine could have been as high as $167,000 between the FPPC ruling and the ethics commission recommendation, but Villaraigosa showed he had made a “good faith” effort to comply with the law.“ It is my responsibility to make sure I act in strict compliance with the applicable rules,” said the mayor when agreeing to pay the fine.

    According to Porter, transparency in reporting gifts is not only the law but good government. “The public has a right to know which individuals are attempting to influence public official by providing them with meals, entertainment, and other gifts.”

  •  What To Look For In A City Manager

    Monday, Apr. 4, 2011

    Wanted: A professional with the highest integrity and ethics who embraces open government and transparency. This week the Encinitas city council will be interviewing for a city manager, using the above description.

    After suffering the embarrassment of the criminal activities of the former mayor (he failed to declare a $100,000 loan), the lawmakers are also hoping to find someone who exhibits sound judgement and is innovative and focused on the future. The candidate must be also able to turn around public perception that many important decisions have been made behind closed doors.

    The hiring effort is not off to the best start, according to The Coast News, which is critical of the lack of transparency in the recruitment process and questions the compensation and retirement of the outgoing manager.

    It seems the city needs a Mary Poppins-style manager: practically perfect in every way. And I think Encinitas would also benefit from a council who would allow a qualified and independent manager set high standards and engage with the public.

  •  Do You Need An Ethics Nanny?

    Thursday, Mar. 31, 2011

     

    The role of an ethics commission is an important one. It can provide an independent look at charges of impropriety, and be protected from the political impact of disciplinary hearings.
     
    A recent column in the Chronicle-Herald, a Canadian paper, criticizes the Halifax regional councillors for their proposal to hire an integrity commissioner. Describing such a person as an “ethics nanny,” Marilla Stephenson cites the cost of adding the position as one opposing argument. She says the 24-member council should be able to do the job themselves, even in a divisive and “backstabbing” environment.
     
    According to a story from CBC News, the Council adopted the code of conduct in May 2009, but without guidelines for implementation. “During that time, council has continued to grapple with two main violations of the code — leaks to the news media and questions surrounding abuse of alcohol at public functions.”
     
    Councilor Linda Mosher supports the new position, saying that self-policing doesn’t work. “So, if we don't have any third-party integrity commissioner or somebody that we can go to, these issues just keep coming and coming,” she said. "We owe it to the public. We're elected public officials. We have to treat people with dignity and respect and treat our taxpayers the same way."
     
    Do you think elected officials can “police” themselves when it comes to ethical behavior? In these difficult economic times is it worth the cost to add an integrity commissioner or create an ethics commission?
    Post your thoughts and best practices here.

     

  •  Women Leaders

    Wednesday, Mar. 30, 2011

    What do Sarah Palin and Hillary Clinton have in common? They, along with Geraldine Ferraro, are all “political pioneers,” entering the race to be the first woman elected to a position in the White House.

    Women have accomplished many “firsts” in the fields of medicine, education, law, business, sports, and entertainment. But politics has been one field more difficult to enter. Some attribute the lower numbers to having fewer women in the pipeline; who are ready to tackle the job. Others believe that the high cost of elections put women at a disadvantage, as historically they have had more trouble raising money. But as these women have shown, the national stage is ready and willing to accept women candidates and officeholders.

    When Geraldine Ferraro became the first woman from a major party to appear on the ballot for vice president, there was hope that many more would follow her lead. There has been progress, to be sure, but there have been many women world leaders since the 1984 election, and we are still behind the rest of the world in this category.

    Recognizing the role of women in history formally began in 1978, with a week devoted to the project. Ten years later the month of March was designated as Women's History Month. The theme for 2011 is “Our History Is Our Strength.” As we close out the month, I celebrate the past, and have no doubt that building on this history will make our future stronger.

  •  No-Win Options For Miami Mayor

    Tuesday, Mar. 22, 2011

     

    Last week the voters in Miami recalled the mayor. Unlike some city leaders who leave office because of corruption or sex scandals, Carlos Alvarez was run out of office because he supported raising taxes.
    Throughout the recall campaign, the embattled mayor maintained that the tax raise was the only way to fill a $444 million budget gap without cutting major services. Opponents were angry at the tax rate increase as well as a salary raise for public employees.
    Two things strike me about this vote. First, the recall was heavily funded by a billionaire car dealer who said the voters were “tired of unaccountable officials, of being ignored, and of being over taxed.” It is troubling to witness an increasing number of elections swayed by the personal assets of one or two individuals.
    My second concern is the message this sends to public officials who are struggling with difficult choices, and are forced to either generate revenue or cut spending. This could have a chilling effect on the moral and political courage of our elected officials.
    Alvarez, who was ousted with 88% of the vote, is the first local government official of a large metropolitan area to be recalled. Given the current impossible budget choices, it is unfortunate to realize he may not be the last.

     

  •  Ethical Decisions Mean Accepting Responsibility, Not Placing Blame

    Tuesday, Mar. 22, 2011

     

    Public contracting problems can range from multi-million dollar public works projects to small-scale sidewalk repairs. But in some cases, the contracts are for consulting and services, and these are no less important than the “bricks and mortar” decisions.
     
    A case in point involves  Desert Hot Springs, California. Rather than following the city charter requirement for competitive bids, the city accepted the word of Tony Clarke, who claimed success in promoting concerts.
     
    Without the standard vetting of qualifications, and without offering the job to other promoters, the city signed a $250,000 contract for promotion of a Wellness and World Music Festival. In fact, the council voted to also pay $15,000 to the same man to conduct a “feasibility report” on the project.
     
    Other promoters showed interest, but were not invited to submit proposals. When it became evident the contractor was unable to fulfill his promises, the city decided to conduct an “abbreviated open solicitation” for proposals, giving interested parties 10 days rather than the standard two months to respond.
     
    When the mayor, council, and city manager were asked how such a basic requirement for competitive bids could be overlooked, there were plenty who assigned blame, but no one who took responsibility. Ethical government calls for honesty and transparency. That means admitting mistakes, and taking corrective measures to restore public confidence. It also calls for changes in process and policy to avoid similar schemes in the future.
     

     

  •  Determining Conflicts Of Interest

    Wednesday, Mar. 16, 2011

    Conflicts of interest in government are often discussed from a strict legal perspective. Does voting on a particular item have a financial impact on the legislator? Are there real estate holdings that might influence a vote? Does a vendor or potential contractor employ a family member?

    But there are also significant ethical issues to consider in determining whether or not a conflict of interest exists. And some believe that even the appearance of a conflict is sufficient grounds for recusing oneself from a vote.

    A current case in Baltimore illustrates how many ways you can examine an issue and how reasonable people can disagree on the appropriate action. In this instance, the mayor of Baltimore has been voting on contracts involving Johns Hopkins Health Systems, although the company employs her husband. Since he began the new job in  December 2010, Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake has voted on 12 items involving Johns Hopkins entities. The decisions involve $900,000 in contracts and services.

    The mayor says she has not voted on any deals directly involving the division where her husband works. “I abstain from any vote directly related to Hopkins Community Physicians, where Kent works.” The city’s ethics code specifies: “a public servant may not participate in and must disqualify himself or herself from any matter if it involves a business entity in which…a disqualifying relative is a partner, officer, director, trustee, employee, or agent.”

    The city attorney is investigating the issue, first brought up by the Baltimore Sun newspaper. He says that while “it appears acceptable for Rawlings-Blake to participate in decisions involving the university, it is less clear from an ethical standpoint whether she should be voting on issues involving the medical system.”

    Proactive legal and ethical advice could have saved the city, the mayor, her husband, and the university from making headlines that impact public confidence in government. The threshold for looking at these issues is, simply put: the law is the floor, not the ceiling.

  •  When Is A Lobbyist Not A Lobbyist?

    Tuesday, Mar. 15, 2011

    Attempts to simplify registration and reporting by lobbyists took a step in the right direction when the Georgia legislature reversed an interpretation by the Georgia Government Transparency and Campaign Finance Commission.

    The commission’s advisory opinion determined that “everyone who is being paid at the moment they meet with a legislator are to be considered lobbyists and subject to registration and report filing every two weeks.” The fine for not reporting: $10,000.

    But the House and Senate agreed this view did not take into account the number of teachers, employees, and business owners who meet with state representatives. A revised bill clarifies the definition of a lobbyist, saying “only those people who spend more than 10 percent of their time talking to legislators.”

     

  •  Lessons From The Earthquake In Japan

    Friday, Mar. 11, 2011

    The earthquake in Japan is an important reminder of the role of disaster preparedness in our communities. While legislators look for services and programs to trim spending in government, I hope they will consider retaining funding for emergency services.

    Many cities and counties offer training for residents, knowing that when there is a major natural disaster people will have to help themselves and their neighbors. With cuts to police and fire, there will not be enough emergency responders to cover all impacted areas.

    The American Red Cross, Salvation Army, and other non-profit groups will likely pick up some responsibilities once covered by the public sector, but we need to retain a core of trained staff to take charge.

     

  •  Will Medical Marijuana Help Close The Budget Gap?

    Thursday, Mar. 10, 2011

     

    I saw a bumper sticker this week that said, “Tax the rich…they can afford it.” But what happens when the tax hits the poor?
     
    This week, the City of Los Angeles voted to tax medical marijuana receipts, leading one advocacy group to say, “patients already pay a nearly 10 percent (sales) tax on the medication that’s already expensive and unaffordable to many.”
     
    The measure was passed by an overwhelming majority, and is seen as one way to generate $10 million per year to pay for basic city services. The budget shortfall in Los Angeles is $350 million. Several other California cities, including San Jose, Oakland, and Sacramento impose “gross reimbursement” taxes.
     
    Medical marijuana advocates are not the only ones expressing concern. Legal staff in both the city and county says the city should not tax something the federal government considers unlawful. City Council President Eric Garcetti pointed out another question: “If marijuana is supposed to be medicine, you can’t tax medicine. And if it is a gross receipts tax on a business, these (dispensaries) are not supposed to be businesses.”
     
    The number of collectives is multiplyingthroughout the state, but not all are designated as nonprofits cultivating and selling marijuana for medicinal use. What do you think about the new taxes? What is the best way to treat the legal dispensaries fairly? Is it ethical to collect taxes on something illegal? Post your comments here.
     

     

 
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