Judy Nadler, senior fellow in government ethics at the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics, looks at ethical dilemmas, scandals, and best practices in government.
Friday, Jan. 28, 2011 10:53 AM
When it was founded, Philadelphia was called the City of Brotherly Love. William Penn chose the name from a translation of the Greek phrase philos (love) and adelpos (brother).
In more recent times, that nickname has come to describe a pattern of nepotism that has destroyed trust in government and cost the city millions of dollars. The good news is that the pay-to-play scandals have prompted long-overdue ethics reform.
Mayor Michael Nutter has just signed executive orders that fulfill his 2007 campaign promise to “clean up” the culture of corruption at city hall. Although the stricter policies apply to nine out of 10 employees, they do not apply to the city council, controller’s office, “or the city row offices comprising hundreds of employees.”
With more than 23,000 employees, the ethics commission has more to do now that sexual harassment, restrictions on outside employment, and other reforms have been adopted. The councilmembers should follow the mayor’s lead and make ethics a priority for Philadelphia – and start with applying the rules to their own offices.
Thursday, Jan. 27, 2011 2:20 PM
“What is the best way for people to deal with their differences?”
This query, taken from the 1991 edition of “Getting To Yes: Negotiating Agreement Without Giving In” struck me as a perfect question for the new Congress and all newly elected public officials to consider.
The authors, Roger Fisher and William Ury began working together in 1977 and developed the highly respected Harvard Program on Negotiation. Although the pages on my paperback copy have yellowed over the years, in re-reading the book recently I found some solid advice for today’s leaders.
For example, in the chapter “Separate The Problem From The People” the authors offer a toolbox filled with basic principles for getting along and offer three ways to frame relationship issues:
- Perception—put yourself in the other person’s shoes; don’t blame them for your problems; give them a stake in the outcome.
- Emotion—recognize and understand emotions, theirs and yours; allow the other side to blow off steam but don’t react to emotional outbursts; use symbolic gestures (like an apology) to diffuse emotions.
- Communication—listen actively and acknowledge what is being said; speak to be understood, and speak about yourself, not about them; speak for a purpose (sometimes speaking too much is the problem).
While the State of the Union address is behind us, many cities and states are preparing for their own status reports for the public. Budget messages are being formulated, and campaigns are already in full swing for some individuals. All would benefit from a goal of this book “to “work together to create options that will satisfy both parties.”
Tuesday, Jan. 25, 2011 4:56 PM
The consent calendar is probably the most overlooked item on a city council agenda, but it often contains important items.
Councilmembers in Riverside, California
are being asked to look at the practice of adopting all consent items with one motion, in part because a project on tonight's agenda has a $220 million price tag, and could be passed without much discussion.
Generally the consent calendar is reserved for “routine items” such as authorizing the payment of bills, but tonight’s meeting is an example of a complex and expensive project folded in with minor or administrative items.
Traditionally the public has a right to comment on any item on the agenda, but in July 2005 the council decided only the staff and councilmembers could “pull an item” off the consent agenda for discussion.
Mayor Ron Loveridge defends the process, saying these projects have been discussed at previous meetings and are not “new.”
The purpose of public meetings is to ensure the public can participate. When the issue comes up tonight, I hope the mayor and council will reconsider their policy and once again allow open discussion on all items.
Monday, Jan. 24, 2011 4:29 PM
When I read that Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas amended his financial disclosure forms I was surprised that he had overlooked some items. When I read that he amended forms dating back 13 years I was shocked.
Surely a man of his qualifications and with his staff would realize that disclosing financial information is fundamental to virtually every judge and officeholder. Yet he failed to disclose income from his spouse--in fact he marked the box indicating no income from her.
This hides the fact that the Heritage Foundation disclosed payments of some $690,000 to his wife between 2003 and 2007. More puzzling is the fact that until 1996, he included her income on his forms.
No one is above the law. Disclosure is both a legal and ethical issue, and should not be taken lightly. A discovery such as this for a local or state officeholder would likely bring a substantial fine.
What do you think the appropriate enforcement action should be for a Supreme Court Justice?
Monday, Jan. 24, 2011 3:26 PM
Fiscal triage is underway in cities and counties across the country. The economy remains sluggish, unemployment is high, and the cost of providing basic services continues to rise.
Does this sound familiar? It's the same song we've heard for at least five years, but now there seems to be more truth in the lyrics. The naysayers, pundits, candidates, and officeholders have all tried to fix our budget shortfalls without actually making substantial changes. That is no longer the case.
In California, Governor Jerry Brown is not only trimming "extras" like government-issued cell phones, fleet vehicles. and a variety of agencies, he is taking a close look at redevelopment agencies. These agencies, established in cities and counties throughout the state are allowed to shift their property taxes from schools and other needs in order to dedicate the money to "blighted areas." Cities argue a redevelopment agency (RDA) stimulates job growth and improves property values, and the League of California Ciies is mounting oppostion to the proposal.
Each redevelopment comes with a staff, so John Chiang, state controller, is also looking at salares in the 18 RDAs he has targeted for review.
As painful as Brown's proposed cuts are (they include higher education, social services, and the like) they are necessary --unless voters support higher taxes.
When the nurse is ready to give a shot it is usually with the warning" "this is going to hurt." Californians should consider themselves forwarned.
Friday, Jan. 21, 2011 4:06 PM
California's Governor Jerry Brown has declared a "fiscal crisis" in the state, and has proposed some tough cuts to address the deficit. But cities across the state are rallying to object to a plan to eliminate redevelopment agencies, long considered an economic development tool.
Regardless of what fix the governor and legislature enact, it will not address the long-term problems. In a poll taken by Western City magazine, published by the League of California Cities, respondents were asked "What would you like to see the legislature accomplish this year?"
Not surprisingly, 72 percent of the respondents said they were looking for a long-term vision for the state, one that would address structural problems "without deferring problem items to future years."
Thursday, Jan. 20, 2011 2:30 PM
When John F. Kennedy was elected on November 8, 1960, my parents told me it was the most special birthday present I could receive. Although that was impossible to imagine at my young age, as I grew up it was apparent that indeed, that election would have a tremendous impact on the history of our country, the world, and on my life work.
Few could have imagined the changes that were part of the energetic administration. Kennedy would usher in a new spirit of engagement in the United States. Some of our most dramatic achievements were born – the space program, Peace Corps, a promise to end racial discrimination.
Today, on the 50th anniversary of President Kennedy’s inaugural address, his memorable words are spoken again. “Ask not what your country can do for you. Ask what you can do for your country.”
Wednesday, Jan. 12, 2011 5:22 PM
Street sweeping or homework centers? Skate park or senior center? Retirement incentives or layoffs?
As the streetsweeper came by my house this morning I was wondering how long it will be before this service is cut from the budget. Now it is a weekly service, but I know of some cities that don't sweep the streets anymore because there is not enough money.
California's new governor has been looking for all kinds of places to cut costs -- from fleet vehicles to cell phones. Cities are likewise examining each and every program, and trying to balance a mixture of vital services (police and fire) with very important programs (water treatment plant and upkeep of streets and sidewalks) with the kinds of things that make a community llivable -- good schools, clean parks, well-stocked libraries, and the like. (It could be argued that all of these are vital to a well-rounded community.)
If you were given a list of all the services your city povides, along with the cost of each and asked to balance those costs against the city's revenue, what would you choose? Would you cut services or increase taxes? Both? Share your thoughts by commenting on this post. It will be interesting to see how the citizens prioritize spending.
Wednesday, Jan. 12, 2011 4:43 PM
The headline read "Hercules mayor to step down," but as my friend the editor says, the most important issue was buried in the story.
Yes, it is news when a mayor resigns, especially one who has been the subject of a recall for alleged unethical behavior. But what struck me as I read this news item was that an interim city manager in Hercules was terminated shortly after he was hired "after posting a series of online status reports illustrating the city's deteriorating financial situation."
Wait - that is the kind of information the public should have. Charlie Long divulged that the Redevelopment Agency could not pay all of its obligations and the general fund was also short of money.
By hiding financial information, or trying to, the city council is feeding the type of distrust that made Bell, California a "poster city" of how not to make decisions.
While I am not privy to all that the council knew, on general principle I know that more disclosure is better, and that transparency in government is one of the best ways to restore public confidence.
Tuesday, Jan. 11, 2011 11:00 AM
There was a time when "money laundering" was linked only to organized crime. Today, former House majority leader Tom DeLay was sentenced to prison for engaging in a money laundering scheme to funnel illegal corporate contributions to influence the 2002 election in Texas.
In addition to his three years for money laundering, the once powerful congressman (known as The Hammer) was also convicted of conspiracy. The charges could have led to a sentence of life in prison.
When he was convicted in November, DeLay called the action "the criminalization of politics."Even upon his sentencing, he maintains his innocence, saying, "I fought the fight. I ran the race. I kept the faith."
Monday, Jan. 10, 2011 3:00 PM
I shuddered when I heard of the shootings in front of the Tucson, Arizona Safeway store. A congresswoman, holding a “meet and greet” with her constituents was the subject of an assassination attempt. Unthinkable.
In my role as mayor I spoke at community meetings, countless ribbon-cutting ceremonies, and even served once as a volunteer “bell ringer” for the Salvation Army red-bucket campaign. I walked precincts during my campaigns, and went door-to-door with a code enforcement officer to speak with residents in a low-income neighborhood. But the only place I felt the least bit vulnerable was at city hall, whether in my office or at a city council meeting. Somehow I thought discharging my official duties in a government building was more of a risk than assisting Girl Scouts sell cookies outside the library.
The painful truth is that we all take a risk each day: driving to work, walking to school, riding a bicycle to the park, taking the bus to buy groceries. .” Indeed, military, police, and fire professionals risk their lives every day for the public good.
In a message to alumni of the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard
, Dean David T. Ellwood noted that Rep. Gabrielle Giffords was “engaged in public service and may have been targeted for that work.”
We owe all who serve our respect and gratitude. As Dean Ellwood says, “public service is a calling… It always requires sacrifice and often requires uncommon courage. Women and men who serve the public interest, who speak with integrity and intelligence, and who work for positive change are heroes.”
Friday, Jan. 7, 2011 3:25 PM
As a former mayor, I contend there is no more challenging job for a public official than serving in local government. Constituents consider you the “go to” person to solve problems ranging from barking dogs and potholes to economic development and immigration reform.
The experience of being so close to the voters (you will probably see them in the grocery store, public library, or local restaurant) helps keep you focused on issues and “grounded.” Working with the city administrators and council colleagues sharpens leadership and communication skills.
These skills will be put to the test for 14 mayors or former mayors recently elected to higher office. According to the U.S. Conference of Mayors
, voters in Colorado, Connecticut, Tennessee, Rhode Island, New York, and Maine elected local officials to the top job. And in California, former Oakland mayor Jerry Brown will serve as governor, with former San Francisco mayor Gavin Newsom as his lieutenant governor. Former Baltimore mayor Martin O’Malley was re-elected governor. The 112th Congress will include six new members who have come from the mayor’s office.
As these lawmakers take on their new responsibilities, I urge them to:
- set and maintain the highest ethical standards, and apply them to all
Thursday, Jan. 6, 2011 4:51 PM
Efforts to reform state government are now taking shape across the country. For those who are newly elected, there is the challenge of making good on all those campaign promises. For the re-elected governors, the struggling economy does not allow time for celebration or complacency.
Regardless of your status – new or incumbent - I recommend you put ethics at the top of your agenda. Many of last year’s worst scandals involved governors and other state elected officials. Several lawmakers were forced to resign, and the efforts to uncover illegal and unethical behavior are being driven by an angry and disillusioned electorate.
Change will not come quickly or easily, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try. Today a reporter asked me which issue should a new governor attack first: ethics reform or the top statewide issues such as education and reviving the economy?
They cannot be separated. If there is a culture of ethics in the state legislature, there is a better chance that the laws that are passed have been openly and honestly debated, and that the decisions were made on merit. Transparency, accountability, and integrity will go a long way in the quest to restore the public’s confidence.
Wednesday, Jan. 5, 2011 3:45 PM
A pledge is defined as a binding contract, a promise, or an agreement. The Republicans begin their majority rule in Congress today with “A Pledge to America
,” a document describing, “a new governing agenda.”
At a time when partisan divisiveness is causing even more public cynicism, I read carefully the language in the pledge. I do not deny that these are times that call for difficult decisions, reforms, and a renewed faith in government. But I don’t believe that words like “unchecked executive, compliant legislature, and overreaching judiciary” are the best way to describe those who don’t agree with you. Similar sentiments were expressed in the last Congress, and seem to be de rigueur.
How about a pledge from both sides of the aisle for greater respect for differing opinions? Is it too much to ask that our government leaders check their party affiliation at the door and work collaboratively to address the tough issues?
With each change in majority/minority status in Congress we have the chance to do things differently. We have the ability to return to civility, cooperation, and commitment.
As the pledge states, “to whom much is given, much is expected.”
Tuesday, Jan. 4, 2011 1:38 PM
I read hundreds of newspaper stories every week about government ethics, but sometimes it is the comments by readers that are most illuminating.
The training, to be conducted by the Commission on Public Integrity, is a response to Cuomo’s pledge to make ethics a hallmark of his new administration. “Top government employees should have no questions, no gray areas, no possibility of confusion regarding what is proper and what is not.”
Within an hour of the posting readers began commenting. While some were congratulating the governor on his commitment to ethics, others took a more cynical view. “Shouldn’t these people already be ethical???” wrote someone named Dave. “That’s the problem to begin with, you can’t teach an old dog new tricks.”
Another comment, from “Olaf Fubb” argued that just because people are required to take the training doesn’t mean “that all will pass or even show up.” Another reader wanted to know if this would be “real training or some web-based e-course.”
Using names such as Taxpayer advocate, madasahatter, and Question Mark, the remarks reflect the type of skepticism that can accompany required ethics training. Even someone who posted under the name “hope” expressed reservations, writing “this is an important but symbolic gesture…mandatory attendance at ethics training without some strong accountability is not going to change that (behavior) but it sure sounds good.”
I believe in ethics education, and I know it can make a difference. What do you think?
Tuesday, Jan. 4, 2011 12:59 PM
January ushers in change, and that was felt in a dramatic way in Cuyahoga County, Ohio,
where a new form of government was in place Monday, January 3.
The county, formerly led by just three commissioners, is now governed by 11 elected officials and a new county executive. The change was prompted by a history of corruption that led to a ballot measure creating the new structure.
“Integrity and professionalism in our work is an urgent priority for me and should be a key priority for all of us in Cuyahoga County government,” according to Ed FitzGerald, the new top administrator. “We should not delay in establishing a higher standard in the performance of all our duties.”
In addition to restructuring the board, the year begins with a new ethics code requiring all employees to report “wrongdoing or unethical conduct, whether by a fellow employee or outsiders.” There is also a proposal to establish a code of conduct for vendors doing business with the county.
Monday, Dec. 20, 2010 3:39 PM
Accepting tickets to sporting events seems to be the “Achilles’ heel” of many elected officials. The excitement of hosting the Super Bowl, Olympic games, or NHL playoffs can prove to be very tempting – especially if everybody does it.
So it is no surprise to learn that New York Governor David Patterson
was caught soliciting and accepting 5 tickets to the 2009 World Series, compliments of the New York Yankees. The state Commission on Public Integrity levied a $62,125 fine.
Patterson, who says he always “intended to pay for them,” was also charged with lying to the commission when neither his staff nor the Yankees would back up that story.
Because the baseball team has numerous issues before the state government the conflict of interest is obvious. The more damaging part of this story is Patterson’s deliberate attempt to cover up, including post-dating a check.
While some have criticized the amount of the fine, the commission said ethics rules must be applied “exactingly at the top.”
“The moral and ethical tone of any organization is set at the top,” according to the commission report. “Unfortunately, the governor set a totally inappropriate tone by his dishonest and unethical conduct. Such conduct cannot be tolerated by any New York State employee, particularly our governor.”
Friday, Dec. 17, 2010 5:03 PM
When something goes wrong or a student makes a mistake, educators are likely to ask, “what can we learn from this experience?”
In looking ahead to the government ethics stories I predict will be in the headlines in 2011, I’m reflecting on what went wrong this year and trying to imagine what we have learned, and how or if things will change.
Reviewing the past is easy; predicting the future is difficult. Nevertheless, here are the five topics I believe we will be talking about in the months ahead:
· Conflicts of interest. We used to think that a conflict was clearly defined and applied to an individual and a vote. Things have changed. We are now seeing all kinds of conflicts of interest surfacing – institutional, personal, financial, political. The “sleeper” is the conflict that exists when public officials are involved in foundations, non-profits, and similar organizations that benefit the community but also benefit the office holder.
· Campaign finance and the influence of money. Record amounts of money were spent across the nation on the November election, and a significant portion came through 501c 4 organizations that are not subject to the strict reporting requirements we need in campaigns. And while the defeat of Meg Whitman and Carly Fiorina in their self-funded campaigns may lead us to conclude that personal wealth cannot buy an election, there are results in other races that prove otherwise.
· Increased use of social media. At the Conference on Governmental Ethics Laws (COGEL) conference I attended recently, there was much talk about the use of social media in government and politics. I predict more government agencies, officeholders, candidates, and voters will be using Twitter, Facebook, and other platforms. This presents many opportunities, but also many challenges. As long as comments can be made anonymously and statements posted without any verification as to factual content, we are bound to have problems. And public officials will need to remember that a majority of councilmembers chatting on Facebook about city business is no different than conducting business behind closed doors – it’s illegal.
· The private lives of public officials. While sexual misconduct has captured most of the headlines in the past, I expect there will be some new subjects that surface in this area of personal conduct. Increasingly, the background and history of an individual can come back to haunt, even 20 or more years later. (And there are many stories captured on cell phones that make it to YouTube.) There are also high-stakes financial dealings that may receive more attention in the coming year.
· Partisan polarization. The emergence of the Tea Party has created an unprecedented degree of chaos and partisan bickering on the local, state, and national level. Budgets have been stalled, bills have languished, and rhetoric has overtaken honest debate. I’ve heard people talk about the “super minority” and “super majority” in terms that signal a long, difficult legislative year ahead.
Let me know what you think will be making headlines next year. Post your comments here or on my Twitter account : her_honor.
Thursday, Dec. 16, 2010 6:07 PM
As I reflect on all that has transpired in 2010 there are so many scandals to choose from I honestly had a tough time deciding on the top five contenders for my "worst behavior in government list." Of more concern, it was difficult to identify a five really great things happening in the area of government. (I sincerely hope that changes in the coming year.)
I’ll begin with the worst so that we can end on a positive note. The list is incomplete and in no particular order.
· Pay scandal in Bell, California. News that the city manager was drawing more than $800,000 in salary sent shock waves throughout the country and made international news. Made elected officials and administrators look like crooks.
· On-going scandal involving former Detroit mayor Kwame Kilpatrick. (This is so big it counts as two.)
Currently serving time in prison for earlier offenses, Kilpatrick is now the subject of a new, 38-count indictment by the Federal Grand Jury. A six-year investigation showed he and his father along with other city officials engaged in fraud, corruption, racketeering, extortion, bribery, and other crimes. Using both his former state office and his power as mayor Kilpatrick is accused of extorting millions of dollars from contractors and abusing the public’s trust. As U.S. Attorney Barbara McQuade put it: “If you steal from the taxpayers, you are going to be held accountable. Getting out of office does not get you off the hook.”
· Supreme Court decision on Citizens United. This action allows millions of dollars spent on campaigns to go unreported, and opens the door for further erosion of transparency and accountability in political campaigns.
· Representative Charles Rangel. After serving decades in Congress, Rangel stood before his colleagues and was publicly rebuked. The lesson here: no matter how much you do to help your constituents, you have ethical obligations as an elected official. No one is above the law, or above the ethical standards we expect in public servants.
- After years of corruption, Alabama has adopted 7 ethics bills. Rather than accept the “lame duck” status of an outgoing governor, Bob Riley pushed for adoption of the legislation, which was passed at 3 a.m.
- More government agencies embrace transparency. A new “app” called iOpenGov gives free access to California laws on open government and related issues. A good idea for the other 49 states.
- Jacksonville, Florida caps a multi-year effort by passing a charter change (with a 17-0 vote) that incorporates ethics provisions removed in the 1970s. Among the new provisions: Establishing an ethics commission with more independence; having the ethics officer report to the ethics commission; and creating a system for commission fines and penalties. This grass-roots effort is a model for other cities hoping to unite diverse constituencies to encourage positive change.
- The election of Alaska Senator Lisa Murkowski. This has nothing to do with the candidates or their issues – I just think it’s great to have the voters take the time and make the effort to write “Murkowski” on their ballots.
- The Jon Stewart – Steven Colbert rally on the Great Mall in Washington, D.C. I’m betting some people were more excited about this event than they were about any inauguration. Not only did the rally raise awareness of the need for citizen involvement and civil discourse, it showed that politics and public policy could actually be fun, if not funny.
Tomorrow I’ll give my predictions for 2011. In the meantime, let me know what you think of the list. Do you agree? Disagree? What would you add or subtract?
Wednesday, Dec. 15, 2010 4:27 PM
This afternoon I will brag, er, I mean blog about some exciting news.
I was delighted to learn that Her Honor has been named one of the top 50 ethics blogs, and ranks in the top 5 political blogs.
It is an honor to be selected, and I hope you will further the reach of this blog by posting your comments on issues I write about, or something else that is on your mind.
When I began posting on government ethics several years ago there were plenty of things to write about. But nothing could have prepared me for what has transpired in 2010. Tomorrow I will share some of the best and worst things I've observed, and offer a forecast for the future.