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, Oct. 19, 2010
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
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.
Friday, Oct. 8, 2010
Friday, Oct. 8, 2010
Who should investigate ethics complaints? The city of Riverside, California is trying to decide, as they amend changes to the city's ethics code.
One city commissioner examining the code said the current system of having council members decide ethics complaints about each other is like "putting the fox in the hen house." The committee selected to review the code is considering the appointment of an outside group to rule on complaints. It's an idea worth considering.
The very political nature of most ethics complaints means they are subject to suspicion -- both when they are filed and when an opinion is issued. Some cities shy away from ethics codes for this very reason: who can independently and fairly evaluate the ethics of elected and appointed public officials?
What do you think? Who is best for this job?
Thursday, Oct. 7, 2010
It seems reasonable to ask city employees and elected officials to conduct city business at city hall, and to likewise conduct personal and political business elsewhere.
More than just a reasonable request, this separation of public service and politicking is the law -- one that is debated at length during the campaign season.
A case in point is the city of Oakland, California, where a resident has filed a complaint with the Oakland Public Ethics Commission regarding a link between a councilmember's Web page and her campaign Web site.
More troubling is the accusation that her staff members were engaging in campaigning on city time, using city computers.
The pervasive nature of social nework sites such as Facebook leads us to forget when and where we are posting an update, uploading photographs, or commenting on an issue.
Some of the employees involved in this investigation say they were making innocent comments, and doing so during their breaks.
For better or for worse, the public believes (and has a right to believe) that when an employee is at City Hall during the workday that the employee is engaging only in the public's business.
I know it's not that easy to separate your personal and professional life. Some days there are emergency calls from the babysitter, or a return call from the doctor's office. But those interruptions should be the exception, not the rule.
Thursday, Oct. 7, 2010
When I tell people I do workshops on ethics in government, they often ask "How can you teach someone to be ethical?"
That question probably comes up for the people at the Institute for Civility in Government, who offer "civility workshops" and trainings for organizations.They wll be featured at the upcoming National Conference of State Legislators meeting.
The non-profit group "aims to build civility in a society that increasingly tilts towards uncivil speech and actions."
While civility impacts all levels of society, the Institute focuses on government, believing that understanding the way we approach governing is as important as any positions we may take.
The workshops are divided into four parts:
- Know thyself/differences are enriching
- Listen with your heart, mind and strength
- Help comes from unexpected places
- One is powerful, but numbers count
Do you have any examples of the damage done by uncivil discourse? What techniques have you employed to create an open environment that fosters respect?
Post your answers here, and help share the commitment to build a more civil society.
Wednesday, Oct. 6, 2010
Most of the debate about unfunded public pensions centers on the nation's largest city governments. The situation is equally critical in some of our smaller communities.
South Burlington, Vermont has a population of only 17,000, but the current pension plan is underfunded by $9 million.
Council members have placed the blame on former city manager Chuck Hafter -- they allege he knew of the growing problem but failed to inform the council or the community.
In fact, the council has asked for a formal investigation by the International City/County Managers Association (ICMA). The runaway costs, Hafter says, are due to public safety enhancements; the council is accusing him of negligence, concealment, and possible personal financial benefit.
Regardless of the outcome of any investigation, this case is an indication of the pervasive problem state and local governments face when trying to live up to negotiated benefits.
Tuesday, Oct. 5, 2010
This week I learned of the passing of three former mayors, men and women I had the privilege to work with.
Along with the memories of the good times -- elections, re-elections, city-wide celebrations -- I will remember them also for the not-so-good times. Those would be the long meetings on weekday nights, the residents who became angry with a council decision, struggling with budget cuts,living through the California drought and mandatory water rationing.
I wonder how many of the candidates running in the November election have any idea of how much work and worry goes into public service, Would they believe me if I told them the number of hours they will spend in meetings? Could I get them to comprehend the tons of paper they will read, the complaints they will hear, and how few compliments will come their way?
It is quite possible their friends will no longer understand the special language they will learn, as they pepper conversations with words like infrastructure and namedrop organizations like BAAQMB when they refer to the Bay Area Air Quality Management Board.
So before you cast your vote, take a moment to appreciate the hardworking public officials who give up time with family and friends to take time to represent you.
Tuesday, Oct. 5, 2010
Kudos to the Albion, Michigan city council, who this week elected 23-year-old Garrett Brown to replace a seat vacated last month.
Brown, a Princeton University graduate, majored in religion, ethics, and politics, a perfect combination for public service.
"I just felt I couldn't continue to make excuses or complain about situations without at least trying to make a difference."
Too often the makeup of legislative bodies does not reflect the diversity in the community. It is important to encourage "emerging leaders" to participate in elective office, while embracing those whose experience and institutional history can add greatly to the deliberative process.
Monday, Oct. 4, 2010
Too many bills introduced by legislators are written by lobbyists, according to Robert Bentley, candidate for governor in Alabama.
"That's the most discouraging part of being in the Legislature, to see the control that lobbyists have."
Bentley's opponent in the race, Ron Sparks, agrees lobbyists are powerful, and says that if he becomes governor no one on his staff would be allowed to take so much as a cup of coffee from a lobbyist.
Alabama, like many states, requires registration of lobbyists. The numbers help tell the story of the influence they have: there are 650 registered lobbyists compared to 140 senators and house members.
While lobbyists serve a role in federal, state, and local government, their impact should not be greater than that of the public or their lawmakers.