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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.

  •  Surprising Data On State Salaries

    Wednesday, Feb. 9, 2011


    Could you live on $10 a day? If you are a state legislator in Alabama that is your salary. You’ll also get about $4,000 a month and $50 a day for three days each week that the legislature meets in session.
    The Web site Ballotpedia gives salary, per diem, and other information about state government. You may find the information surprising.
     Not all legislatures are full time or meet year round, but it looks like the elected officials in New Hampshire are elected volunteers: they are paid $200 for a two-year term and have no per diem. And if you are elected to state office in New Mexico you receive no salary – just  $159 per diem (tied to the federal rate).
    Much focus has been placed on exorbitant salaries going to public employees, but with the exception of the full-time California legislature ($95,219 a year) most of the men and women at the state capitols are modestly paid.
    The ongoing debate about compensating elected officials is sure to heat up again as state budgets continue to shrink. Do you think your legislator is paid a fair salary? Should he or she be given a raise, or asked to take a cut in pay to help balance the budget?


  •  City Employee Gets Big Fine For Small Sticker

    Tuesday, Feb. 8, 2011


    If you are caught using city property for a purpose other than city business you will probably be disciplined or fined for an ethics violation. But one Seattle employee is unhappy about the $300 he must pay for putting a police sticker on the back of his personal car.
    Joseph Benavides, who works for the city’s Department of Transportation, said when he found the 4-inch by 4-inch sticker with the Seattle Police Department logo in the traffic sign shop, he stuck one on his SUV “as an experiment” to see if it would hold up in the weather.
    The black sticker differs from the standard blue one issued to the police department. “I didn’t think anything about it,” he said. An ethics complaint was filed by a whistle blower, and the executive director of the commission said the “decal in the rear window of his blue Chevy Suburban could lead to confusion over whether his car was an official police vehicle.”
    After acknowledging he violated the code when he misused city property Benavides said,“ I had no idea it was wrong, none at all.”
    Was the sticker small? Yes. Was the $300 fine appropriate? What do you think?


  •  Checking Credentials For Chicago City Council

    Tuesday, Feb. 8, 2011


    The race for mayor of Chicago has already garnered plenty of headlines, and we can expect even more coverage in the coming weeks. But an equally important election could shape the future of the city.
    A staggering 240 candidates are vying for seats on the Chicago city council. The 50 aldermen (women are also called aldermen) are elected to four-year terms and represent geographic “wards” in the city. Although they meet just once a month, they handle the same kinds of land use, traffic, public safety, and school issues facing locally elected officials in small, medium, and large cities across the country.
    With a new mayor comes the opportunity for change, and voters are fortunate to have the local newspaper take interest. The editorial board of the Chicago Tribune held endorsement debates for the 43 contested seats, and began publishing their recommendations Monday, starting with the first 10 wards. It’s a sometimes dizzying description of Chicago politics, but serves as a vital source of information for the public.
    In an era marked by shrinking local news coverage, when public meetings are no longer attended by “beat reporters” it is encouraging to see this kind of commitment by the newspaper. The obligation is now on the voters to take note of this research on the candidates and issues before heading to the polls.


  •  Social Networks And Identity Theft

    Monday, Feb. 7, 2011


    Having a Facebook page is one way public officials stay in touch with constituents. But a state representative from Connecticut found her social network included a new form of “identity theft. ”
    Because State Representative Kim Hunter Rose doesn’t use the chat feature of the social network site, her friends were suspicious when messages arrived from her asking for money to pay taxes on money she had won. An unknown person had created a second, fake account using her name and photo.
    This type of hijacking of identity has also been used in political campaigns, where the veil of anonymity makes it virtually impossible to track down the culprits.
    Any recommendations for how to best deal with reaching the public through social media while protecting your good name? Share them in the comment section of this blog.


  •  Best Ethics Opinions Are Clear And In Writing

    Friday, Feb. 4, 2011


    Denver airport manager Kim Day has been charged by the city’s ethics board for violating the code of ethics for accepting a paid trip overseas in 2009.
    Day flew to Greece, with all expenses paid by Insight Media Limited, a London company that was negotiating a contract with the airport at the time of the trip. The value of the contract was $370,000 and Day says the financial details had already been worked out when she flew to Athens.
    Although she asked for advice from the ethics board in advance, notes show that the matter was discussed but no opinion was issued. The airport has reimbursed the company $5,700 for the trip.
    This situation illustrates the importance of obtaining a clear, written opinion rather than relying on simple conversations. The city and the airport could have avoided the scandal and the cost if better procedures were in place to cover such “gifts” to public employees.


  •  Medical Marijuana Dispensaries: Problem Or Opportunity?

    Wednesday, Feb. 2, 2011


    Until recently, much of the discussion in California about medical marijuana dispensaries centered on where they could be located. Should they, for example, be banned from areas where there are schools, teen centers, and playgrounds? The debate has expanded, as many cities are considering “licensing” the outlets and thus creating a new revenue stream to help balance budget deficits.
    Oakland, California passed an ordinance in November that would allow the city to issue permits to allow industrial cannabis cultivation. Under the existing Cannabis Cultivation Ordinance, the city can issue business permits to eight large-scale cannabis growers. There are also provisions for regulating and taxing the businesses.
    But growing and selling marijuana is illegal, and only allowed in California in specific circumstances. The council recently received word the city’s ordinance might get them into trouble. According to the Alameda district attorney’s office, “It remains an open question whether public officers or public employees who aid and abet or conspire to violate state or federal laws in furtherance of a city ordinance, are exempt from criminality.”
    Possible revisions include safeguards meant to better comply with the law, and provisions to make sure cannabis would not be “diverted” or sold to non-patients who do not have medical marijuana cards.
    One patient activist , who presented the council with three pages of her concerns, worries the problems with the ordinance could “negatively affect taxes that go to the city, and negatively affect patients.”


  •  Webcasts Help Government Come Alive

    Wednesday, Feb. 2, 2011


    I’m writing this while “attending” the government realignment hearings at the state capitol in Sacramento. I can be in my office and also in Sacramento thanks to a live Webcast from The California Channel.
    This video-on-demand site is funded by California cable television providers, and bills itself as “your streaming source for politcs and public affairs that shape California.”
    Archived materials, such as Governor Jerry Brown’s State of the State address are available, along with subcommittee hearings, discussion from the Senate floor, interviews with legislative leaders, and more.
    This kind of access to state government can provide the public and the media details about the budget shortfall that are essential to financial recovery in California. It's a great model worth replicating.


  •  Saving For A Snowy Day : Chilling Facts About The Cost of Winter Storms

    Tuesday, Feb. 1, 2011


    Hurricanes, floods, and tornados – all take a toll on local government. But the recent blizzards in the mid-west and on the east coast serve as a reminder that there is a high cost for keeping a city functioning when you run out of money.
    Some recent examples:
    • New Jersey spent its entire snow removal budget of $20 million before the storm last week. Money is being borrowed from other accounts, but the state is hoping to receive more than $50 million in aid from the federal government.
    • In New York City, $38.8 million was spent on the 20 inches of snow that fell in December—the full amount of funds set aside for this purpose. This does not cover the 36 inches that fell in January, or the cost of the current storm.
    • Westport, Connecticut had to move 38 inches of snow from the roads, depleting not only the $400,000 budget but also exhausting city employees who have had to work round-the clock to clear streets.
    • The city of Northampton, Massachusetts used to purchase snow removal insurance, but when the premiums became too expensive the city cancelled.
    So while budget talks across the country will continue to focus on “essential” services such as police, fire, and education, there are many cities that will be forced to make even more difficult funding decisions in light of the unexpected and unfunded weather conditions.


  •  Religion, Politics, And Public Policy

    Tuesday, Feb. 1, 2011


    Few city council decisions cause more controversy than the approval of a mosque. In the city of Temecula, California, the months-long debate ended at 3:30 a.m. with the city council’s unanimous approval for the project.
    During my tenure in office the city of Santa Clara faced a similar decision. The Muslim Community Center purchased an empty office park in 1993 and petitioned the city to allow it to be converted to a mosque and Islamic day school. Debate was often heated, statements were sometimes made based on emotion rather than reason, and it was clear the community had very little knowledge of the Muslim faith. The discussion of the traffic impact was key, but sharing background and information about  religious practices became as important.
    I can imagine that in Temecula, where the mosque will be built next to a Baptist church, the debate was even more impassioned. The destruction of the World Trade Center towers and international news of terrorism threats prompted fear among the residents. Pastor Terrell Berry of the Orchard Christian Fellowship told the council, “It confuses us when we hear and read that many mosques are used to call its members to insurrection and jihad. We know that is not true of every mosque, but I would question this: Is it going to be true of this mosque? And if it’s not going to be true of this mosque, then demonstrate that.”
    In fact, that is exactly what the Islamic Center plans to do. After the approval of the 24,943-square-foot building Imam Mahmoud Harmoush said, “Now I think we must again devote ourselves to reaching out to the community.”
     I would add that it is also a good time for the community to reach out to the mosque.


  •  Rooting Out Corruption In Local Government

    Monday, Jan. 31, 2011


    While political news “inside the Beltway” is standard fare, Prince George’s County in nearby Maryland has been in the headlines as well.
    A new county executive, Rushern L. Baker has replaced Jack Johnson, who left office after his indictment on federal corruption charges. “Pay-to-play” was so ingrained in the county government that ending the cycle has been compared to “untying a Gordian knot.”
    “It is very important that we should focus on these concerns,” said former Baltimore mayor Kurt Schmoke, who chairs the Accountability, Compliance, and Integrity Advisory Board. He said it is important for people to know what is going on, and for the political leaders to learn “how citizens feel about what is going on.”
    The panel will consider a wide range of tools to increase transparency in government, including publishing public documents online. A priority will be examining the establishment of a hotline, identified by the panel as “a deficiency that inhibits rooting out waste, fraud and abuse .”


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