Judy Nadler, senior fellow in government ethics at the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics, looks at ethical dilemmas, scandals, and best practices in government.
Wednesday, Dec. 15, 2010 2:38 PM
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!
Tuesday, Dec. 14, 2010 3:54 PM
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?
Thursday, Dec. 2, 2010 4:12 PM
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.
Thursday, Dec. 2, 2010 10:00 AM
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.
Monday, Nov. 29, 2010 4:27 PM
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.
Wednesday, Nov. 24, 2010 2:20 PM
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.
Tuesday, Nov. 23, 2010 11:03 AM
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?
Monday, Nov. 22, 2010 4:48 PM
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?
Friday, Nov. 19, 2010 11:43 AM
The Costa Mesa,California city council is ready to appoint a new member to take the seat of a councilmember who was just elected to the local school board.
Not so fast, says Katrina Foley, who is now backing away from her pledge to resign her council seat after her election as a trustee for the Newport Mesa Unified School District.
California law prohibits individuals from holding "incompatible offices." Although there is no laundry list of offices that might be in this incompatible category, the bottom line is that you "cannot be on both sides of the negotiating table."
Foley says the attorney general's opinions are "decades old and dealt with a particular set of factors that are not necessarily present in our city." The opinions, regardless of when they were written, recognize the potential conflicts of interest and serve the public well.
This is a clear case of trying to serve two masters. The responsibilities that accompany elected office are significant, and require time and effort. To attempt to serve in two offices means one -- or the other-- is bound to suffer. Not only will Foley's governing resources be taxed, it is hard to imagine how she will be able to keep the two roles completely separate.
Ms. Foley should decide which office she wants to hold and leave the other open for appointment.
Friday, Nov. 19, 2010 9:55 AM
There are few things that infuriate the public more than government officials getting "a free ride." This is literally the case in New Jersey, where Port Authority commissioners, employees, retirees, and non-union employees had access to free E-Z Passes.
The practice began after the attack on the World Trade Center, home of the Port Authority offices. According to Deputy Executive Director Bill Baroni the agency is "eliminating benefits that are unavailable to the toll-paying public." The new headquarters are expected to open in 2014, and the toll-free transportation will only be continued for those who were working on or before September 11, 2001 and will cease when the new building is opened.
The Port Authority estimates the move will save $1.5 million a year. Even though that amount is a fraction of the overall budget, dropping this benefit for all agency employees is a significant recognition of the importance of spending tax dollars wisely,
Thursday, Nov. 18, 2010 4:53 PM
I am sometimes asked how can I evaluate the success of ethics education? Is it measured by the number of public officials that don't get into trouble? Do fewer ethics investigations mean a program is effective?
These can be tough questions to answer, but I just learned of one example that shows people are paying attention and taking action.
Over the past few years I have been using the Ethics Center Web site to post case studies, op-eds, and other resources for learning more about ethics and values in government. Joan McBride of Kikland, Washington has been following these, and has called on occasion with general questions about ethics codes.
This week Mayor McBride's efforts and those of her colleagues and an Ethics Task Force have led to the introduction of a code of ethics. The code would be applied to city boards, commissions, and councilmembers, and calls for greater disclosure.
"I have to admit that this thing made me nervous because I kept seeing instances where I personally could be considered, shall I say, at risk," said Deputy Mayor Penny Sweet.
It is precisely for this reason that local government should study, craft, and adopt a code of ethics and values.
Although I'm still hard-pressed to cite statistics about the effectiveness of government ethics education, the city of Kirkland has given me great anecdotal information.
Thursday, Nov. 18, 2010 2:24 PM
Today's opinion page of the Baltimore Sun includes a letter from a software developer who is critical of the city's proposal to broadcast public meetings on cable TV. In fact, the writer says while "well-intentioned, it would be far more transparent, cheaper and broader to publish meeting notices and minutes of all city boards and agencies on the Internet."
Whenever the idea of televising public meetings comes up there are always naysayers who complain about the cost of the broadcasts, or lament that "nobody wants to watch the council on TV."
Actually, people do tune in. They can not only listen to the presentations and debates, they can view the slides, and hear the public comments. And they can see how their elected and appointed officials behave during meetings.
An on-line transcript will not show the mayor rolling his eyes or frowning when disagreeing with a comment. Written records do not carry the same weight as hearing the tone and inflection of the speaker. They also do not reveal when elected officials whisper to one another during deliberations, or leave the dais.
The Maryland Public Meetings Act requires all governmental and quasi-governmental meetings be open and accessible to all. The state's Public Information Act enables individuals to access government records.
The letter of the law simply requires transparency. But I know that, short of attending in person, a televised or streamed meeting is the best way to share the democratic process with everyone.
Wednesday, Nov. 17, 2010 4:36 PM
The popularity of the iPhone has sparked a new phrase: "there's an app for that."
For those interested in first amendment issues, the First Amendment Coalition has just announced it has "an app" for open and accountable government with the introduction of iOpenGov .
The free download gives users an instant and easy guide to public access laws in California. Have questions about the Brown Act? You can learn more in both English and Spanish. Need a lawyer's opinion on a first amendment issue? The new app offers a free legal hotline and an archive of frequently asked questions.
Attorneys, reporters, public officials, and government watchdogs are sure to find the news feed helpful, and the format allows sharing information via Twitter, Facebook, and email.
The First Amendment Coalition, a nonprofit public interest organization, created the tool to track local, state, and national issues and to encourage public participation in government.
This use of new social media supports transprency in government, and should inspire others. Anyone out there have an app for ethics?
Wednesday, Nov. 17, 2010 2:26 PM
Budget woes have cities scrambling for money to provide basic services like police and fire. But there are other essentials that should not go unfunded -- including a general plan update.
Granted, most public officials wouldn't put that item at the top of a priority list, but for the people of Willows, California, it is essential.
With a population of just over 6,000, Willows doesn't stand out among other California cities with budget challenges. The city is operating with a $243,557 deficit, and the costs associated with updating the General Plan simply don't exist.
Planning Commission Chair Larry Domenighini says he's concerned that the city will be unprepared for for the future, especially if growth comes quickly.. "It's a major concern," he said, "something the city needs to look at, but it's about the money."
In this case, not only is it vital to keep current with land-use planning and growth projections, the city will be hard-pressed to attract new businesses if there is uncertainty about the future.
The General Plan is the roadmap for a community, and it's difficult to know where you are going without some kind of direction.
Tuesday, Nov. 16, 2010 4:37 PM
When Dannel Malloy was elected mayor of Stamford, Connecticut in 1995, the first thing he had to do was explain his name was not Daniel.
When he is sworn in as governor, the first thing he will have to do is try to fix the state budget. This will be the more difficult task, but his 14 years as mayor have given him the kind of experience that is needed to effect change.
I met Dan when we both attended a seminar for newly elected mayors sponsored by the U.S. Conference of Mayors (USCM) and Harvard's Kennedy School of Government.
He was bright, eager to learn, and unafraid of the task ahead. During his tenure he was very involved with the USCM and was tireless in his efforts to promote economic growth, improve public schools, and restore confidence in government.
At a March 2009 forum he quipped "If you want to reform property taxes, you might want to elect a mayor." And in a very tight race that was only recently certified, the voters of Connecticut did just that. They chose someone who knows the needs of the people.
He has pledged to clean things up in Hartford, and to make government more transparent. I congratulate him on his victory, and hope we find more former mayors among our nations governors.
Monday, Nov. 15, 2010 4:05 PM
For the 40 years Charles Rangel has served in Congress, he has made and lost friends. He's seen victory and defeat. This week those experiences will provide a theatrical backdrop for his weeklong "trial" before the House Ethics Committee.
The sometimes brash New York legislator is facing 13 ethics charges, and will have to answer tough questions about the millions of dollars that have poured into the Charles B. Rangel Center for Public Service at The City College of New York.
The committee will also look at his failure to disclose all his assets, violations involving apartments in Harlem, and failure to pay income taxes on a vacation home.
In his most powerful days, the Democrat chaired the House Ways and Means Committee. Now he is a defendant appearing before a bi-partisan "adjudicatory subcommittee" of the House ethics committee.
Hoping to avoid such a trial, Rangel agreed to some of the charges this summer, but the "settlement document" will not have an impact on the trial. A staggering 28,000 pages of documents have been assembled over the two years the charges have been investigated.
The tenor of these proceedings may provide a hint of what will come at the end of the month, when California Representative Maxine Waters will have to account for her conduct in office.
This won't be the most pleasant post-election transition in Washington, and the ethics trials only add to the drama. But it is absolutely necessary that charges of illegal and unethical behavior by public officials be openly addressed, no matter how painful that may be.
Friday, Nov. 12, 2010 3:24 PM
According to the dictionary, a "lame duck" is one that falls behind the rest of the flock, or is weak. Today we use the phrase to describe an elected official holding office during the months between the election and the swearing in of a successor.
But as termed-out Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger demonstrated this week, a transition period need not be wasted.
The governor is calling an emergency session of the incoming legislature -- the individuals who will be responsible for solving California's $25.4 billion shortfall.
The new legislators will take office December 6, giving Schwarzenegger a limited window of opportunity before Jerry Brown becomes governor.
By declaring a "fiscal emergency" and convening the special session, Schwarzenegger is proving that there is no reason to be a "lame duck," even if the press describes you as such.
Thursday, Nov. 11, 2010 11:45 AM
Detroit is shrinking. So is Cleveland and many other cities in the areas hardest hit by the changing economy.
What's a mayor to do? In the cases cited above, the answer is to shrink. Shrink city services by shrinking certain parts of the city.
For neighborhoods in decay -- those with more vacancies than residents--it doesn't make economic sense to continue to stretch municipal workers to cover sparsely populated areas.
But the families who have decided to stay, even if they are the only ones left on the block, have rights that need to be considered.
This dilemma is balancing the needs of a few with the needs of many, and doing so with less money. Cities may be shrinking, but so are their budgets. It's important for public officials, urban planners, the business community, and residents to work together to prioritize needs and work cooperatively to keep our cities alive.
Wednesday, Nov. 10, 2010 10:51 AM
Speakers at a recent Santa Fe council meeting called the city's code of ethics for city officials and employees the result of a " meat grinder " approach of reform.
It's never easy to hear that kind of criticism, but for the hard-working and brave souls who spoke to the mayor and council this week, these were words that needed to be spoken.
A representative of the League of Women Voters reminded the officials that all voters " expect and deserve honest and ethical behavior from their public and elected officials and government employees."
Rather than waiting for the councilmembers or staff to enhance the existing code, a group of citizens offered their own "grass-roots" proposal.
It includes important basics: provide a more simple process for reporting conflicts; expand disclosure requirements; broaden the definition of conflicts of interest and how to deal with them; establish a city committee to handle enforcement --and eliminate a city ethics committee that includes councilmembers.
This reform effort came about, in part, because a councilmember admitted he purposely avoided disclosing his relationship as an attorney for a company that does business with the city.
Kudos to the community for stepping forward and speaking hard truths. I hope the mayor and council are listening.
Tuesday, Nov. 9, 2010 3:25 PM
In last week's election in Palm Beach County, Florida , 72% of the voters voted "yes" to adopt a charter change strengthening the ethics commission and the authority of the county's inspector general.
That's the good news.
The bad news is that the town of Palm Beach tried to convince voters to defeat the measure. Now that it has passed, the council president says the voters didn't know what they were doing when they voted in favor of the change. He argues the measure didn't allow the town's residents to vote for the county change while voting to exclude the town.
Prior to the election the mayor and councilmembers passed a resolution urging voters to "carefully consider the disadvantages of the amendment," leading some residents to say they did understand, and the vote reflected their lack of trust in local officials.
The county ethics commission chair is optimistic about the charter change, saying it enchances integrity in government throughout the county. Costs will be shared by all 38 county municipalities.
The mayor and council should stop complaining about the outcome of the election and welcome additional resources to fight corruption, even if they have to pay for it.