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, Nov. 10, 2010
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
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.
Tuesday, Nov. 9, 2010
It's illegal to use public funds for political purposes, but in Atlanta, that line was "blurry" for one member of the city council.
Councilwoman Cleta Winslow was fined recently for spending more than $5,000 of taxpayer's money to support her re-election.
The Ethics Code is clear about some issues, but apparently isn't clear enough about the distinction between community events and campaign events. In this circumstance, Winslow had the city pick up the tab for a number of events leading up to the election. Included in the expenses: food, beverages, and "Re-Elect Cleta Winslow" t-shirts.
In another instance, Winslow's campaign paid for a newsletter updating issues in the district, but the city of Atlanta reimbursed her $3,720 for workers (wearing the the campaign t-shirts) who walked door-to-door to distribute the flyer.
Many cities have officeholder accounts, allowing councilmembers to sponsor special events in their district. This "discretionary" money usually has no strings attached, but this story makes a strong case for guidelines for spending. It's a simple way to make those blurry lines absolutely clear.
Monday, Nov. 8, 2010
They are called "leadership failures" or misjudgements. Some elected officials call them lapses in judgement or "slips" but no matter how you dress up these deeds (or misdeeds) they are still "mistakes."
I can't understand why it is so difficult for politicians to admit they are capable of making mistakes. (Remember the famous line "mistakes were made?")
When President Obama appeared recently on CBS television he spoke of a "series of errors" and admitted he had "misjudged" some things and he hadn't always "been successful."
Part of what drives people crazy when listening to political rhetoric is that it is long on words and short on meaning. I don't know if what the president did was right or wrong, but if he feels he made some mistakes he should come right out and say that.
A hallmark of ethical behavior is the ability to be transparent and responsible for one's actions. If that model started at the top -- the White House -- perhaps Congress would step forward and engage in honest dialog.
Monday, Nov. 8, 2010
I am generally an optimist, but I will admit that when Detroit was hit with multiple scandals over the past few years, I couldn't imagine how the city would overcome the culture of corruption.
My faith is somewhat restored, now that the Detroit Charter Revision Commission has met in the first of a series of daylong meetings. The group of 100 or so residents met to "help the panel determine how the city's government and its functions will be structured under the new charter."
In a large group, then in smaller discussion groups, the participants focused on the theme "Structure, Relationships and Alllocation of Power Between Government Officials."
The Charter Commission was elected last November, and has held 25 meetings to date. The goal of the commission is to draft a final city charter to be put on the ballot in May 2012.
City council districts, ethics, and appointments to the ethics board are among the speciics that will be written into the document.
The commission's chair said she wasn't discouraged by the number of people who attended. I would re-phrase that to say I was encouraged with the turnout, and look forward to following the progress of the commission over the coming months.
Friday, Nov. 5, 2010
Term limits in California are seen as a boon and a bust. Some argue the law prevents good people from gaining experience and becoming better legislators. On the other hand, term limits have been seen as a way to "clean house" and bring in new ideas along with new elected officials.
Whatever your opinion, one very good outcome is the advancement of city and county officeholders to Sacramento.
According to the League of California Cities, more than 50 percent of the assembly and senate have local government experience.
As long as these individuals remember how much the state laws impact local government, we will be celebrating. But Sacramento is a long distance from many of the cities represented by these legislators, and the pressure of the special interests are magnified at the state capitol.
Friday, Nov. 5, 2010
The greatest temptation of a newly elected public official might be to jump in, head first. As with diving into shallow waters, this can be very dangerous.
During the frenzy of the campaign season, friends were made and lost, enemies kept track of perceived slights, and the voters were filled with both hope and despair.
My advice to those who are transitioning from candidate to officeholder is to begin your new role by first thanking all who helped you. Be especially grateful to family members and close friends who provided the 24-hour-a-day support that you needed.
Reach out to your opponents. Understand that although you won, some percentage of the voters chose the other candidate. If you ended the campaign on bad terms with anyone, extend the olive branch. It may be difficult, but this simple action will set the stage for future success.
Learn all you can about your new job before you start making sweeping changes. Things actually look different from inside than they do when you are outside the organization. Ask questions about policies and procedures, and take special care to learn the ethics laws and the values behind them.
To those of you who were unchallenged, don't be content with your "mandate." It could be that people were so tired and fed up that nobody wanted to run against you. Remember your duty to your constituents should be as vigorous now as it was when you were first elected.
If you'd like to know more about how to succeed as a newly elected public official, visit our Web site. You'll learn about the unavoidabe ethical dilemmas you will face in office and how to make ethical decisions.
And if you subscribe to this blog, you'll have a chance to become a part of an important ongoing dialog.
Monday, Nov. 1, 2010
Localocracy is one of those madeup words that is difficult to pronounce but well worth the effort.
The word refers to an online "town common where registered voters using real names can weigh in on local issues." Now currently up and running in four Massachusetts cities, Localocracy is designed to benefit three important constituencies in every community: the citizens, the government, and the media.
Citizens have the chance to learn more about community issues; public officials are able to communicate with residents, prioritize needs, and encourage engagement; and the media can offer "hyperlocal" coverage of events and people.
Founded in 2008, the social media site has garnered great reviews. Howard Weaver, former news executive at the McClatchy Company said "It gives people of all ages another outlet for learning about community issues and participating in our government. It's like the perfect union of town meeting and modern technology."
Check it out and see for yourself.
Friday, Oct. 29, 2010
For anyone who has ever waited in line for hours to register a car, the news story about Memphis City Council member Barbara Swearengen Ware caused a spike in blood pressure.
The council woman was just indicted by a state grand jury for "obtaining expedited service for car tags, in many cases without going to the trouble of having cars inspected."
The evidence shows Ware was soliciting special treatment long before her indictment, and also accepted free tickets from a developer becase he was a 'nice guy."
Despite the revelations, there are no consequences spelled out in the city's ethics code. The voters will have an opportunity to change that next week, when a charter change is on the ballot that would strengthen the code and call upon public officials to "conduct themselves in a manner that promotes confidence in the metropolitan government."
As a Commercial Appeal editorial points out, the public should not return to office individuals "who don't know it's wrong to misuse the power that comes with public office -- whether it violates the law or not."
Thursday, Oct. 28, 2010
The headline was simple enough: "Panel Says Haines City Manager and Police Chief Violated Ethics Laws." But what followed in the local newspaper was a tangled tale worthy of any soap opera.
The Florida Commission on Ethics has announced there is propable cause City Manager Ann Toney-Deal and former Police Chief Morris West were in violation of ethics laws in 2008. The charges stem from a sexual harassment complaint by a woman officer. The city manager is charged with improperly conducting her own investigation, rather than processing it through the appropriate channels in the police department.
The plot grows thicker. The officer accused of the charges resigned after a plea deal with the State Attorney's office. The plea also involved a second sexual harrasment charge related to a consenual affair with a former police officer.
The city manager, if convicted, faces removal from office or a fine of up to $10,000. Former Chief West resigned and gave up his law enforcement credentials in a separate deal with the state attorney, who then agreed to drop three counts of soliciting prostitution from a female parolee.
And to make this story even more incredible, the mayor of Haines is Horace West, brother of the former chief.
I recount this story not because it highlights wrong-doing by public officials. Rather, it serves as an illustration that even in a town of 13,000 the public and press must hold all public officials accountable.
The Grand Jury wrote a highly critical report about the management of the Police Department, yet it was only after the report was released that the state attorney took action.
The city commission voted to retain the city manager on a split vote, and we don't know the outcome of this saga yet. But one of the commissioners who voted to fire Toney-Deal summed it up: "In the category of ethical conduct, we have to be above reproach."