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, Nov. 19, 2010
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.