Judy Nadler, senior fellow in government ethics at the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics, looks at ethical dilemmas, scandals, and best practices in government.
Thursday, Oct. 28, 2010
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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?