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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.

  •  The Business Of Government

    Friday, Jan. 28, 2011
    A cartoon in this week’s New Yorker magazine shows a teacher explaining the three branches of government – executive, legislative, and judicial. A student raises his hand and asks “What about business—which branch is that?”
    Good question. Over the past 15 years the role of business in government has changed from one of partnership to one of privatization. People began to ask why government couldn’t act more like a business, not understanding there are fundamental differences in both the purpose and structure of each.
    One government service up for debate is the potential privatization of Detroit’s municipal water and sewer system. Setting aside the merits of both sides of the argument, I will focus on what I call the “accountability factor.”
    While government operations may not be perfect, they are intended to be transparent. Contracts are to be fairly bid, work completed on time and within budget. Any slip-ups are subject to public scrutiny, and in some cases, lead to sanctions. The costs are out in the open, and the obligation is to serve the community, not the shareholders.
    As budgets continue to shrink and the cost of services continue to rise, it will be important for government and business to begin to work together again. There is the possibility that such an arrangement would bring “the best of both worlds.”


  •  Ethics Reform In Philadelphia

    Friday, Jan. 28, 2011


    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.


  •  Dealing With Difficult Issues And Difficult People

    Thursday, Jan. 27, 2011


    “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.”


  •  Public Deserves To Be Heard

    Tuesday, Jan. 25, 2011


    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.


  •  No One Is Above The Law, Including A Supreme Court Justice

    Monday, Jan. 24, 2011

    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?

  •  We've Been Warned: These Budget Cuts Are Going To Hurt

    Monday, Jan. 24, 2011

    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.

  •  Budget Woes Divide Government

    Friday, Jan. 21, 2011

    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."


  •  The Kennedy Legacy

    Thursday, Jan. 20, 2011


    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.”
    Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government has created a moving and informative look at the president and his legacy.  And a comprehensive multi-media history of the president and his accomplishments can be found at


  •  What Would You Choose?

    Wednesday, Jan. 12, 2011

    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.


  •  When Telling The Truth Can Cost You Your Job

    Wednesday, Jan. 12, 2011

     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.

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