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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.

  •  Top Ethics Blogs

    Wednesday, Dec. 15, 2010

    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.

  •  Cities and Citizens Must Unite

    Wednesday, Dec. 15, 2010

    "Cooperation. Regionalism. Collaboration." These are among the themes discussed at the recent annual meeting of the National League of Cities.

    The association brings together mayors and councilmembers as well as city administrators to share best practices and encourage bipartisan efforts to improve cities.

    Incoming Colorado governor John Hickenlooper, who is currently the mayor of Denver, delivered a strong message. "At some point  this country needs to come together in every sense. We don't have the luxury of partisan bickering after the election."

    I couldn't agree more. As resources continue to be scarce, it is even more important to promote inter-agency cooperation,  regional partnerships, and look for innovative ways to involve the private sector as well as our communities.


  •  Stemming Violence During Public Meetings

    Wednesday, Dec. 15, 2010

     The recent shooting incident at a Florida school board meeting shook me up.

    As mayor, I faced many a hostile audience, but never really imagined that there would be violence. (Our meetings were televised, but that is no assurance of good behavior.)

    Most local municipalities and special districts don't have security at every meeting. I can only remember one time we had anyone in uniform at a council meeting, and that was to keep the crowd from violating the fire marshal's "maximum occupancy" rules.

    The disturbing behavior of the shooter was probably due to his unstable mental state, but it highlights for me the importance of allowing full, open, and honest discussion with constituents, and maintaining decorum.

    Some individuals who attend public meetings are downright angry when they walk in the door, and the way they are treated can either escalate their fury or ease it.

    Here are a few of my rules:

    • Show respect for everyone - colleagues, speakers, and the audience.
    • Listen carefully, and take notes if necessary to make sure  you understand the issues.
    • Speak honestly and stick to the issue at hand.
    • Engage in dialog, not monologue, in coming to your decision.
    • Explain your decision and the action you are taking in understandable terms -- don't be tempted to use acronyms others might not understand,
    • Accept the outcome gracefully, even if it is not the one you wanted.

    Do you have other items for the list? Post them and share your best practices!


  •  To Leak Or Not To Leak?

    Tuesday, Dec. 14, 2010

    The Berkeley, California city council is considering a resolution to "support and free Pfc. Bradley Manning and proclaim him a hero."

    The resolution has been put forward  by the Peace and Justice Commission, a group appointed to advise the council.

    The agenda item poses an important question: Should local governments extend their reach and take actions on issues outside their communities?

    It is important to note that the first responsibility of local government is to perform the necessary duties to ensure a healthy and safe community, supporting fundamental  services to the public and ensuring fiscal stability.

    It is also important to remember that before voting on an item, the elected officials must have sufficient facts in order to make the best decision.

    The facts surrounding the leaking of confidential documents are still unfolding.  And while freedom of speech and transparency are essential to our democracy, there are times when confidential materials must be kept confidential.

    Municipal governments operate under strict "open meeting" laws, requiring decisions to be made in public. However, it is recognized that there are some discussions that must be held in "closed sessions." The circumstances allowing for such closed door meetings are very strict, and include certain negotiations and legal matters.

    One might argue that the confidential diplomatic dispatches that have been leaked are equivalent to the matters deemed confidential for local officials.

    In the end there are two fundamental questions. Should councils take actions on  issues such as those arising from the WikiLeaks? In some communities this is standard fare; in others it is an extraordinary action. Ultimately it is up to the elected officials and those who vote them in office.

    The more important question is: Are there any circumstances where confidential information should be leaked? 

    What do you think? 

  •  Government, Ethics, And The Law

    Thursday, Dec. 2, 2010

    I am taking a break from the blog to attend the Conference on Governmental Laws (COGEL) meeting in Washington, D.C.

    This international organization is dedicated to following changes in the law, sharing best practices, and promoting ethics and integrity in all levels of government.

    I'm looking forward to writing about the seminars and presentations when I return. In the interim, I suggest you visit other parts of the government ethics site for case studies, news, and analysis.

  •  Open Meetings Versus Free Speech

    Thursday, Dec. 2, 2010

    When individuals appear in court complaining about "open meeting laws" they are usually constituents or members of the  press protesting the loopholes that allow back-room deals. In a bizarre twist, more than a dozen councilmembers in Texas are alleging the laws are too restrictive -- and don't allow them to have private conversations.

    I have to admit I read this story twice, thinking I somehow misunderstood the complaint. But, in fact, these public officials feel their constitutional rights to free speech are being violated by the Texas Open Meetings Act. They fear their exchanges might lead to fines or jail time if they violate the Act.

    Unbelievable! The public has a right to know what goes into the deliberations leading to a council vote, and the elected officials have an obligation to be transparent.

    Fortunately the judge didn't agree, but he didn't disagree either. He's asking for more information and will announce his decision next month.

    In taking this to district court these councilmembers have shown either a complete lack of understanding of democracy or incredible hubris. It makes me wonder what else they are up to.


  •  Our Assumptions About Government

    Monday, Nov. 29, 2010

    While at dinner with a friend the subject of accountability in government came up. He had just one question: how could the people of Bell, California not know what was happening in their city?

    The greed and unethical behavior of the city manager, mayor, and all but one councilmember became headline news across the nation. Drawing a salary of some $800,000 in a small, lower-income city sparked new rules for transparency and a Web posting of government salaries.

    While the investigation is not complete, it is apparent the people of Bell believed in their government. Like many others, they probably did not have the time or the ability to carefully track the council actions. Budgets, even in a small city, can be difficult to understand. With the downsizing of newspapers, few cover local council meetings where hints of these problems might have been seen.So while it outraged me to learn of this situation, it did not necessarily surprise me.

    Elected and appointed officials are supposed to work for the public. They are supposed to be honest, trustworthy, and transparent. If we assume their  campaign promises will come true, why should anyone question what happens at city hall?

    This cautionary tale still has people talking. I am hoping it also has them paying more attention to their local government.



  •  Time To Be Grateful For Good Government

    Wednesday, Nov. 24, 2010

    As we gather to celebrate Thanksgiving, it is fitting to reflect on all the things on our "gratitude list." 

    It might not occur to you to be thankful for your public servants, but I am, and here is why.

    There are many good, if not great people working every day to make our lives better. Yes, there are those who have lost their moral compass. Yes, we are still recovering from a nasty campaign season. And, unfortunately, some people use public office to forward their personal or financial interests.

    But in my experience - working with local, state, and federal legislators- most are trying to do the right thing. They want to continue to provide high quality services despite the economic downturn. They work long hours, sometimes late into the evening, and then lie awake worrying about how to balance a budget, vote on an important issue, or solve a constituent's problem.

    People in public life are not perfect, anymore than individuals in medicine, law, education, or any other field. But we should be grateful to them for their willingness to take on the responsibilities of leadership.

    One family I know gives thanks every night at dinner, as each person gets to share the highlights (and lowlights) of the day.

    Let's use Thanksgiving as a day to think of our public servants and focus on the highlights.



  •  Public Employees and Political Campaigns

    Tuesday, Nov. 23, 2010

    It is not uncommon for public employees to take vacation days to work on political campaigns. Some key staff may take a leave of absence to devote undivided attention to a candidate.

    But when two assistant city clerks worked on election day to support the judicial campaign of the council president's daughter-in-law,  others on the Jackson City, Mississippi council called the action unethical.

    The context of this charge is important to note: councilmembers are frustrated with Council President Frank Bluntson. Speaking of the charges, one critic said "The only thing I'm interested in is that we fulfill our job with integrity."

    Blunston countered by saying the clerks volunteered without being asked. "I didn't ask them. Those people in the clerk's office, when you are nice to them they are nice to you. I don't know what his problem is."

    The Mississippi Ethics Commission, while not ruling on this specific case, has stated "there is no prohibition against government employees taking time off from work to participate in a political campaign, as long as they are not pressured to do so."

    The investigation into whether or not the employees were asked or encouraged to volunteer is one issue. Separate from that is the leadership struggle in a politically charged council environment.

    Do you see a problem here? How would you handle this situation?


  •  Ethical And Practical Dilemmas At The Airport

    Monday, Nov. 22, 2010

    An estimated 24 million people will be flying this Thanksgiving holiday, and a growing number of them are confused, frustrated, or angry due to the new screening procedures in place at airports across the country.

    As a fairly frequent traveler who sets off the alarm every time (knee replacement) , I have grown accustomed to waiting for a "female screener" to grab my carry-on items and begin the additional security check.

    I knew everytime the  metal "wand" came near my right knee it would beep, signaing a metal implant and I would be cleared.

    But recently the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) has begun a hand "pat down" that has some travelers feeling -- well -- uncomfortable.

    Instead of asking people to turn down the waistband on their  pants, the TSA employee does that. Rather that running the metal detector around your body and between your legs, the TSA employee uses a "hands on" method that can feel invasive and uncomfortable.

    The woman who screened me yesterday advised me that I could opt for a private screening, but I didn't want to be late for my flight. When I asked what would happen if I had been wearing a dress rather than jeans, she said the hands-on procedure is the same. Of course, depending on what kind of dress or skirt I was wearing I might have to go to a private area and put on what she described as a "hospital gown" so that there could be full access to all the important places.  This makes the new full-body imaging system sound like a gift. (In fact, I have used it a number of times and I am a big fan.)

    Putting aside the privacy and practical arguments, there seems to be a fairness issue to consider. From my observation, only those selected for "random" screening and people like me with metal medical implants are subject to the additional scrutiny.

    I fully support efforts to secure the airports from terrorism, highjackings, or other dangers. But I am equally concerned about the rail system, cargo ships, and interstate highways, and I cannot imagine the chaos of trying to screen all those passengers.

    In a classic ethical analysis, this situation calls for weighing the benefits against the harms, and considering the safety and welfare of a large number of travelers versus the inconvenience of some.

    What do you think?


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