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. 31, 2011 4:14 PM
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.
Wednesday, Mar. 30, 2011 4:20 PM
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.
Tuesday, Mar. 22, 2011 4:12 PM
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.
Tuesday, Mar. 22, 2011 2:36 PM
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.
Wednesday, Mar. 16, 2011 4:07 PM
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.
Tuesday, Mar. 15, 2011 3:20 PM
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.”
Friday, Mar. 11, 2011 4:26 PM
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.
Thursday, Mar. 10, 2011 3:39 PM
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?
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.
Thursday, Mar. 10, 2011 12:01 PM
Did you ever wonder what happens to mayors and council members when they leave office? In California, with term limits impacting the number of years that elected officials may serve in office, many politicians look for a higher office.
A study by the League of California Cities shows that many local government officials continue in service, moving up to the state level. In fact, more than 50% of the members of the California legislature have local government roots. In the 2011–2012 legislative year, there are at least 22 members from local government serving in the state Senate, and 42 members from local government serving in the Assembly. Some have come from city councils; others have served as county supervisors.
Dealing with barking dogs, use permits, land-use decisions, and the other day-to-day trials of local government, these individuals come to the new positions armed with invaluable experience. Given the state of the economy, and the budget constraints all levels of government are feeling, the true test of these public servants will be their ability to tackle statewide problems and still remember their local roots.
Tuesday, Mar. 8, 2011 3:54 PM
When Christiane Ouimet abruptly resigned last fall from her position last fall from the Ottowa Integrity Commission, she received a severance package worth $534,000 in addition to her normal pension benefits. Now a group of more than 30 advocacy groups has asked the government to cancel the severance package and to investigate the disgraced commissioner.
The agreement negotiated by Ouimet required both the government and the former commissioner to seal the document, leading the Government Ethics Coalition to question whether others who have held similar positions have been given similar payouts when they have voluntarily retired. (Severance is usually given to those who are laid off, and at a rate of one or two week’s pay for each year of service.)
It is not only her severance that has caused outcry, but also Ouimet’s actions as a commissioner. A report released after her sudden retirement showed she had acted on only a few of more than 200 complaints that had been brought before her office, leading to speculation that charges against anyone with political influence were simply dismissed. One whistleblower said her perfomance, “had undermined efforts to combat misconduct within the public service.
It may prove embarrassing for the Ottawa government to pursue this investigation, but the ethics of an integrity commissioner should be above reproach.
Monday, Mar. 7, 2011 2:50 PM
When the council and the mayor are engaged in battle, the real losers will often be the public.
For the past year, there has been a great deal of controversy surrounding the city council in Tulsa.
The mayor has been accused of being unavailable and unwilling to perform his job by a member of the council who is seeking his removal from office.
Although no one is sure if a majority of the council supports this effort, it is clear that the city’s business cannot be conducted in an atmosphere where the mayor and council members are on opposite side of a fundamental issue: leadership.
The councilmember who is leading the charge against the mayor was twice a candidate for city attorney. Because those requests were denied, some are speculating that the ouster petition is based on retribution in connection with the city attorney’s job.
“ I am not currently seeking the city attorney’s position,” says John Eagleton. “I could not serve as city attorney with Mayor Bartlett in office.” Eagleton has sent a letter to the governor outlining 11 allegations of misconduct, malfeasance, and criminal behavior. The 241-page document asks the attorney general to investigate the assertions, to determine whether the mayor should be subject to proceedings to remove him from office.
While waiting for the governor’s decision, the councilman has begun moving ahead and is seeking more than 1,000 signatures on a petition to force the attorney general to conduct the investigation. Eagleton has posted the petition on his personal website.
Political drama, as we are seeing in Tulsa, creates disruption in the day -to -day workings of the city. While it is important to pursue accountability in public service, Eagleton’s remarks seem to show that politics may be more important to him than policy.
Tuesday, Mar. 1, 2011 11:03 AM
March is National Ethics Awareness Month.
And the folks in northwest Indiana are looking to do something to focus on ethics in government. Residents in the Chicago/Indiana area are painfully aware of what it’s like to be criticized for patronage jobs, corruption, and felony indictments of top-level officials. So public officials are holding a program on March 11 that “holds the promise of shedding more light on these challenging problems in our community.”
Convened by the Quality of Life Council, and supported by other good government groups, the "Ethics in Government: Northwest Indiana at the Crossroads"
workshop will feature presentations by the Shared Ethics Advisory Committee, the Better Government Association of Chicago, and the Indiana attorney general. A facilitated panel discussion includes a mayor, town manager, state representative, state senator, and U.S Attorney.
This is not the first effort at ethics reform in the region. In 2005 three communities formed a Shared Ethics Advisory Commission. More have joined, and other cities provide ethics training to employees. On the state level, legislation has been introduced that would force disclosure of conflicts of interest, something that is required in many other states.
There are 31 days in March, plenty of time to focus on ethics. And plenty of time to commit to having every day be about ethics awareness.
Monday, Feb. 28, 2011 4:19 PM
On March 8 voters in Los Angeles will decide on an important ballot measure aimed at correcting the pension problem facing the city. Charter Amendment G would create a “Tier 6” plan for sworn fire, police, and harbor department employees hired on or after July 1, 2011. The pension reform measure would also modify certain provisions of the fire and police pension plans, taking into account state and federal laws.
Friday, Feb. 25, 2011 3:20 PM
Old-fashioned government record keeping relied on paper, microfilm, and a basement or vault to store documents. Access was cumbersome and expensive, something reserved for investigative reporters or lawyers.
Electronic record keeping
allows instant access, in some cases “real time” access to the decisions being made on behalf of the public. Although these electronic records – emails, voice messages, tweets, audio or video recordings – are subject to public records laws, not everyone complies.
The latest example of selective retention of public documents involves a University of Iowa athletic official who advised his colleagues to “delete this email after reading it.” The email in question involved internal discussions about the hospitalization of athletes after a strenuous workout, and how best to handle media inquiries.
Iowa’s State Records Commission only covers certain “formal” documents be saved for specific amounts of time. The interpretation varies widely within state agencies. The Cedar Rapids city council uses its own discretion. The governor keeps everything. “It requires a significant amount of storage, but we want to have those for transparency,” says the governor’s spokesman.
To retrieve deleted documents from the University of Iowa costs a minimum of $75 for computer services, and $75 per hour after that. Fees such as these are hardly accessible or affordable.
Transparency is linked to public trust. Kathleen Richardson of the Iowa Freedom of Information Council says it best, “We live in a time when people are increasingly suspicious of government employees. The more accountability the better.”
Friday, Feb. 25, 2011 11:01 AM
Managing the flow of a public meeting can be difficult, and the city council in Bartlesville, Oklahoma hopes a new format and rules of order will streamline the process.
The town of 36,000 is also looking at televising meetings when action is taken, and adopting guidelines for public comment. The council will also establish a code of ethics that would apply to all elected officials and employees, as well as members of boards, trusts, committees, and authorities in the city.
An ethics task force will be formed, drawing in part on individuals who have served on Bartlesville’s charter review committee. Several councilmembers will also be on the task force.
The good news is that there are many resources available to local officials interested in developing or updating an ethics code. An annotated list is available on the Markkula Center’s government ethics page, http://www.scu.edu/ethics/links/links.cfm?cat=GOVNT
If you have additional suggestions, please post them here.
Thursday, Feb. 24, 2011 4:54 PM
Setting up a senior center in your council district is good for the community and the councilmember. In San Antonio, Councilman Ray Lopez thought it might also be of personal benefit
The legislator met with representatives of WellMed, a company that operates 23 clinics in the Texas city. In a follow-up email with the company vice president, Lopez mentioned he had a consulting group with experience in IT support, and requested a meeting to discuss how he could provide services to WellMed.
This kind of “networking” may be common practice in the private sector, but the city’s ethics code prohibits officials from “soliciting outside employment that could be expected to impair independence of judgment.” The code makes no reference to the difference between seeking employment and being hired.
After a discussion of his qualifications, Lopez was asked to intervene on behalf of WellMed to secure a special program from the AT&T Foundation. He contacted the former mayor, a current executive with AT&T. “I thought it was a great service. It’s almost an expected engagement from somebody in public office to try to do outreach and facilitate partnerships where they can happen,” says Lopez.
Ultimately the contract went to WellMed, although they were already under a cloud in the wake of the resignation of another member of the council, Jennifer Ramos, who resigned from a job with WellMed’s charitable arm. Lopez did not end up working for the company.
These types of relationships raise serious concerns about fairness and integrity. Lopez, admitting the lucrative contract is a good deal for WellMed, said “They’ve pretty well cracked the nut.”
Thursday, Feb. 24, 2011 2:47 PM
Is there such a thing as a dangerous tweet?
In an exchange with Mother Jones magazine, Jeffrey Cox tweeted “use live ammunition” when referring of a way to disperse protesters in Wisconsin. Cox also blogged regularly on a site called Pro Cynic, which he has since shut down.
A spokesman for the AG said the office does not condone the statements and “we do not condone any comments that would threaten or imply violence or intimidation toward anyone. Civility and courtesy toward all constituents is very important to this agency.”
Although the tweets were sent over the weekend and on Cox’s personal Twitter account, the office exercised a zero-tolerance approach when confronted with the facts. “As public servants, state employees should strive to conduct themselves with professionalism and appropriate decorum with the public.”
The agency has no formal guidelines for use of social media, but is in the process of developing them. Absent that, the employee handbook admonishes employees to conduct themselves in a professional manner during and after work hours.
Do you think the punishment was appropriate? Cox claims he was the victim of a double standard about who can talk. What do you think?
Wednesday, Feb. 23, 2011 11:48 AM
“I did it for the community, and I think we will be better off because of it.”
Terry Lee, former Pierce County councilman agrees that his decision to serve in his elected position while also holding a paid job for a park district in Washington State may look “suspect.” In fact, the board that hired him loosened its prior requirements for qualifications and ultimately selected Lee without interviewing other finalists.
But Lee defends his actions by saying they were not illegal, while acknowledging he started his final push for the county to transfer parklands while he was also negotiating to be the new executive director. Both he and the board insist there was no “quid pro quo” and no ethics complaint has been filed. But the situation leading up to his hiring calls into question the ethical decision-making process for both parties.
The story ran in The News Tribune,
a local newspaper that reviewed public records and other documents, including an email from a former campaign adviser warning Lee about the appearance of a conflict. The facts make a perfect case study for anyone interested in learning about ethical dilemmas in government.
Wednesday, Feb. 23, 2011 11:23 AM
Protests and politics in Wisconsin have increased the sharp focus on government salaries and benefits, creating a rippling effect in other states. Ohio and Illinois are engaged in similar debates, and California Assemblyman Allan Mansoor has introduced legislation seeking to change the collective bargaining process in the Golden State. For months, newspaper headlines and editorials have expressed sharp criticism of the public sector, leaving the impression that there are a “bunch of crooks” and “greedy” employees running government.
While I am concerned about the inability of public agencies to balance budgets while facing monumental unfunded benefits, I am also concerned about the impact of the hand-wringing and harsh criticism on the future of public sector jobs. Not only are good people choosing to retire from public office, there is a significant turnover among professionals, according to the International City/and County Management Association (ICMA).
The phenomenon, sometimes called the “retirement tidal wave” has prompted Next Generation Initiatives
, an ICMA project designed to “attract and develop a wide and diverse group of people into the local government management profession, including students, early and mid-career professionals, and individuals from other fields.”
In my work with undergraduate political science students I emphasize the many challenges and rewards of public service, and remind them that elective office is not the only way to engage in meaningful change.
Let’s hope the current crisis inspires a new generation of problem solvers.
Tuesday, Feb. 22, 2011 4:53 PM
The prospect of cities declaring bankruptcy has governors and legislators looking for solutions to rescue insolvent municipalities
. In Central Falls, Rhode Island, the answer was to demote the mayor to an advisor, and put a state-appointed receiver in charge of the city. The state now has authority for unlimited oversight.
Last July Mayor Charles D. Moreau was forced to turn in his city car, cell phone, and keys to city hall. His salary went from $71,736 to $26,000, although he has yet to be called for advice. His problems did not begin with the bankruptcy, however. Moreau is currently under investigation on state and federal corruption charges, but has refused calls for his resignation, insisting he is planning his 2013 re-election campagn.
A retired state judge is serving as receiver, trying to get the city financially on track. Cedar Falls was the first city in the state to declare insolvency, leaving both a deficit and unfunded retiree benefits. The action caused the city’s debt to plummet to junk bond status, and raised alarm in the town of 19,000.
Cedar Falls is one of thousands of small towns that might be a good candidate for consolidation. While pooling resources and sharing revenues is not always an easy transition, it seems to make sense in a city of only 1.29 square miles.