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Her Honor

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

  •  What Is The Best Way To Enforce Ethics Rules?

    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.

     

  •  Neither Ethics Nor Corruption Are Inherited

    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.

     

  •  Log On To Track Campaign Cash

    Friday, Oct. 8, 2010

    Checking out campaign finance reports used to be left to bureaucrats and newspaper reporters, but in San Diego anyone who logs on to the Internet can check on the latest in contributions and expenditures for local races.

    Launched by the San Diego Ethics Commission, the site is the result of  the new requirement of the California Fair Political Practices Commission (FPPC) to post the data online.

    The financial summaries include the council races as well as  a measure to increase the local sales tax.

    The Web site will be updated throughout the election season, and should prove an invaluable resource for the voters.

  •  The Fox In The Hen House

    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?

     

  •  City Hall Should Be Off Limits For Campaigns

    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.

     

  •  How Do You Teach Civility?

    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.

  •  Unfunded Pensions: Who Is Responsible?

    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.

  •  Giving Thanks For Good Work

    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.

     

  •  Welcoming Emerging Leaders To Public Office

    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.

  •  Should There Be More Laws Regulating Lobbyists?

    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.

     

 
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