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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.

  •  Local Leaders At The State Level

    Thursday, Mar. 10, 2011

     

    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.

     

  •  Questioning The Ethics Of An Integrity Commissioner

    Tuesday, Mar. 8, 2011

     

    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.

  •  Political Battle in Tulsa

    Monday, Mar. 7, 2011

     

    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.

     

  •  Shedding Light On Ethical Challenges

    Tuesday, Mar. 1, 2011

     

    March is National Ethics Awareness Month.
     
    Seriously.
     
    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.
     
     
     

     

  •  LA Tries Charter Change To Address Pension Problems

    Monday, Feb. 28, 2011

     

    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.
    This is one of what will probably be many measures taken by local government to rein in retirement expenses. For a description of the measure, visit Smart Voter at http://www.smartvoter.org/2011/03/08/ca/la/meas/LA-G/

     

     

  •  Don't Delete This

    Friday, Feb. 25, 2011

     

    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.”
     

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  •  Getting Started On An Ethics Code

    Friday, Feb. 25, 2011

     

    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.

     

  •  When Networking Looks Like Quid Pro Quo

    Thursday, Feb. 24, 2011

     

    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.”

     

  •  To Tweet Or Not To Tweet? That Is The Question

    Thursday, Feb. 24, 2011

     

    Is there such a thing as a dangerous tweet?
     
    Apparently there is. The Indiana attorney general thought tweets posted by a deputy in the office were grounds for dismissal.
     
    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?
     

     

  •  It May Be Legal But Is It Ethical?

    Wednesday, Feb. 23, 2011

     

    “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.
     

     

 
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