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, Nov. 29, 2012
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
“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
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
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.