Judy Nadler, senior fellow in government ethics at the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics, looks at ethical dilemmas, scandals, and best practices in government.
Tuesday, Nov. 9, 2010 10:49 AM
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 4:55 PM
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 2:48 PM
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 1:27 PM
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 1:05 PM
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 3:24 PM
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 1:46 PM
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 2:36 PM
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."
Thursday, Oct. 28, 2010 10:32 AM
Like a marathon runner who sees the finishing line but still has a distance before breaking the tape, the last few days of a campaign can be the most difficult.
This year has been particularly grueling, with Tea Party rallies, candidates threatening reporters, and a senatorial write-in campaign adding to the already colorful mix of politics.
Perhaps that is why this weekend's dual rallies on the Washington Mall seem so perfectly timed. When Jon Stewart and Steven Colbert announced the event, I didn't imagine the U.S. Park Service would actually issue a permit. But they did, and this faux rally could be just what our country needs to counter the negativity that has dominated the past few months.
A friend told me last night (with chagrin) there are only six weeks until Christmas. I told her (with relief) there are only six days until the election.
It's all a matter of perspective, and I am hoping mine will improve after the rally and before November 2.
Tuesday, Oct. 26, 2010 4:40 PM
Ever wonder how much your city librarian is paid? How about the city manager or police chief? What does an auto mechanic earn?
Traditionally local government salaries have been hard to find. Usually the search meant pouring over the city or county budget to see the line item denoting salaries.
No more. California State Controller John Chiang has just posted the most comprehensive salary data in the state's history.
Upon viewing the Local Government Compensation Reports Web site, you will be able to find salary information for calendar year 2009 for all the cities and counties in California. Those who have not yet submitted the data are also highlighted.
The process begain in August 2010 when Chiang announced he was requiring the reports to show not only salaries but public employees' compensation. The move has gained attention in the wake of news reports on exhorbitant salaries and pensions of some administrators and councilmembers in Bell, California.
The report is easy to navigate, comprehensive in detail, and appears to be a good model for other states.
Tuesday, Oct. 26, 2010 4:02 PM
Tracking spending in this election cycle is an accountant's nightmare.
With the restrictions on giving recently relaxed due to the Citizens United case, an unprecedented amount of money is flowing into congressional races, and much of that is being used for non-candidate spending.
The Campaign Finance Institute, an independent group affliated with the George Washington University, is releasing up-to-date information on what is being raised and spent both by candidates and independent parties.
Their Web site features sortable lists, breaks down expenditures by national party committees, and publlishes receipts and spending. The site also allows you to compare current data with historical statistics.
If you really want to follow the money, this is the site that will help you track the people and the parties behind the election.
Monday, Oct. 25, 2010 2:08 PM
Is enforcement of government ethics on the federal level more lax than on other levels of government?
Maybe, if you are with the Bureau of Land Management (BLM). A former manager with the New Mexico BLM office recently left to take a job with the New Mexico Oil and Gas Association.
The shift in jobs was given the okay by federal government ethics officials, even though the employee had been responsible for overseeing 1.8 milllion acres of public land in New Mexico.
A federal watchdog group, the nonpartisan Project On Government Oversight (POGO) has asked BLM director Bob Abby to look into this apparent "revolving door" employment.
The conflict is significant, according to POGO, because as a former federal regulator, he would be able to "trade on his insider knowledge and contacts in his new role advocating for the industry."
Despite an earlier ruling, the ethics agency has decided to take a second look, in part because documents uncovered by POGO show the employee used his government computer in applying for the job.
It's easy to get inundated with paperwork in a bureaucracy like the Department of the Interior, but that is no excuse for allowing lapses in the area of ethics.
Friday, Oct. 22, 2010 3:08 PM
Libby Mitchell is running for governor of Maine. Her husband is a candiate for judge of probate. Her son is on the ballot for a seat on the Portland city council, and daughter Emily is vying to become a member of the state legislature.
The Republican party has filed an ethics complaint against Mitchell, saying a recent ad featuring her family runs afoul of Maine's "clean elections" public financing, as it shows other candidates.
Libby Mitchell says she cleared it with the state ethics commission, which will now be reviewing the complaint.
Few candidates campaign without showcasing their family, and the most traditional ads are of the candidate with spouse, kids, and the family dog. What makes this different?
I saw the ad. It features the candidate and members of her family explaining why they live in Maine. There was no electioneering by family members, and from my perspective it was just another "feel good" ad.
But the complaint underscores the disturbing trend of last-minute ethics complaints. While some may be legitimate, overall they come off as last-minute attacks serving to further confuse the electorate.
Friday, Oct. 22, 2010 2:41 PM
Don't bother to file an ethics complaint with the City of Baytown, Texas. At least not until January 1, 2011, when the city will resume operation of its ethics commission.
The hiatis took effect October 14, at the recommendation of outside counsel assisting the city in investigating a complaint. The attorneys are recommending some changes to improve the workings of the commission, and suggested a moratorium on complaints until the changes could be put into place.
A brief break in the workings of the commission should not cause concern as long as everyone realizes there is no moratorium on ethics violations. Changes should be made with input from the public, but community outreach should not draw out the process. The sooner the commission is up and running, the better,
Friday, Oct. 22, 2010 10:00 AM
In today's environment, the news story that is published or aired is sometimes not as interesting as what follows under "reader/listener comments."
Increasingly these anonymous remarks are turning into vile diatribes rather than thoughtful commentary, leading some news outlets to suspend or modify the comments option.
Many of the postings appear in the form of irrelevant and nasty remarks about the subject of the story, the reporter, or the news outlet. Most are offensive due to racial, gender, or other types of slurs.
While people in public life know they are subject to the "slings and arrows" of those who disagree or dislike them, some of these attacks are of a very personal nature, and are not appropriate in any context.
This type of ranting does nothing to further civil discourse. Rather than cutting off comments, perhaps it would be helpful to have an on-line moderator to encourage the exchange of ideas, rather than killing them.
Thursday, Oct. 21, 2010 3:15 PM
For the past 90 years the League of Women Voters (LWV) has been a valued resource for the public and the press. Local chapters sit in on city council meetings, study general plans and other important policy issues, and moderate campaign debates. They can be found registering voters, volunteering on election day, and researching all sides of an issue before issuing a recommendation.
Today I received an email from the president of the League of Women Voters, promoting VOTE411, an online voters' guide. By simply typing your address you can access the candidates and their positions, as well as any ballot measures. A special feature has information for military and overseas voters. Best of all, the site allows you to print out the results, which serve as a handy guide at the polls.
"Your vote is your voice," read the email. Fortunately, this internet site makes it even easier to "speak up" on November 2.
Thursday, Oct. 21, 2010 2:42 PM
It should go without saying that driving your car with snow on the roof, windows, hood, and trunk presents safety concerns.
But in New Jersey it is not only ill advised -- it's illegal. The new law went into effect October 20, and requires that all ice and snow be removed from a vehicle before drivers take to the road.
"For years we've seen evidence of the dangers of snow and ice on vehicles," says Colonel Rick Fuentes, Superintendent of the New Jersey State Police. "Now, the law prohibits what common sense should have already dictated."
The new regulation reflects a growing trend to legislate everything from what kind of bag you use at the grocery store to where you are allowed to smoke.
Most laws like these have been adopted to protect the environment or ensure public safety. And while these may be admirable goals, the rules are only effective if consistently applied across city, county, and state boundaries.
What "common sense" law would you like to have adopted? Are there any you would repeal?
Wednesday, Oct. 20, 2010 3:13 PM
As we head into the final days before the November election, candidates, political parties, and special-interest groups are pouring more and more money into last-minute efforts to win voter's approval.
Good luck with that. While the barrage of negative ads may be getting positive attention from the outlets running the ads (this is a great source of revenue for radio and television), most viewers and listeners consider the final days of the campaign season the worst of all worlds.
Rather than focusing on a candidate's own vision and record, most closing ads will tear down the opponnent. This serves to "dirty up" not only those involved in a particular race, but these negative ads contribute to voter apathy.
So while political pundits point out half-truths and outrigt lies, voters tune out and turn off amid the flurry of confusing and insulting ads.
It doesn't have to be this way. While some believe negative campaigning wins races, some of us hold on to the hope that candidates and their supporters will stand up to that assumption and set a new standard of ethical campaigning.
I'm in. Are you?
Tuesday, Oct. 19, 2010 4:37 PM
Praise or punishment? Which works best when monitoring an employee's ethical behavior?
That is the question I asked a group of visiting Chinese government workers who came to California to learn about ethics in government. It was apparent from their questions that strict rules are followed primarily because of the fear of punishment. In fact, many of their questions were about how to monitor employee behavior and how to enforce laws and rules.
In one case, they said it was illegal for a city employee to use his equipment and time to trim the tree of a resident. Yet, when asked if they would apply that same standard if the individual was an 85-year-old woman they were unanimous in saying "no!" In fact, they said they would be praised for helping a senior citizen, even if it was against the rules to use city time or equipment for non-city business.
This led to a discussion of the "slippery slope." If you are willing to make an exception for the senior citizen, what other exceptions would you be willing to make? Would you also be "praised" if you connected this resident to a non-profit that assists seniors in upkeep of their homes and yards?
Understanding the values associated with ethics laws is critical. There are never going to be enough laws passed to address every ethical dilemma. It is important to think through each situation, and when necessary, exceed the letter of the law and uphold the values.
Monday, Oct. 11, 2010 2:47 PM
When the headlines alert us to yet another public official headed off to jail, there is a temptation to cast all politicians in the same damaging light. Likewise, when the ethical problems occur in Philadelphia or New Jersey, people are apt to dismiss them by saying "it's always been that way."
I don't believe corruption is an inherited trait, nor do I think any city or state can be "written off" due to a history of unethical behavior.
Does North Carolina come to mind as a hotbed of corruption? Probably not. But in 2007 when former North Carolina house speaker Jim Black was convicted of corruption, his was the worst case in the state. He served a three-year prison sentence for accepting some $25,000 in bribes.
Corruption can occur in small and large cities, urban and rural. The population of a state does not determine a predisposition to politcal crime.
So while it's important to prosecute those who have broken the laws, it is also important to consider the message we send when accept corruption as "the way things are done."
The electorate must put aside their distaste and cynicism and instead focus on holding elected and appointed officials accountable for their actions.