Judy Nadler, senior fellow in government ethics at the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics, looks at ethical dilemmas, scandals, and best practices in government.
Friday, Oct. 8, 2010 4:24 PM
Friday, Oct. 8, 2010 3:33 PM
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 5:02 PM
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 1:46 PM
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 11:46 AM
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 4:56 PM
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 11:58 AM
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 4:03 PM
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.
Monday, Oct. 4, 2010 2:20 PM
California may make more headlines for ballot propositions, but a quick check shows voters in other states will also have to make some interesting decisions.
In Oklahoma, for example, there are 11 issues to be decided, from a requirement to present identification at the polls to expand term limits for some officeholders.
These are the more "straight forward" of the propositions. Voters will also have to decide yes or no on State Question 754. Here is what will appear on the ballot: "Approved by the Legislature in response to SQ 744 being placed on the ballot, this proposal would prohibit constitutional spending requirements based on pre-determined formulas or how much other states or entities spend on a function." What does that mean?
Translating the difficult issues into a snappy ballot measure is not the way to enact legislation. The move toward allowing "the people to decide" only allows the legislators to give up their responsibilities.
Thursday, Sep. 30, 2010 2:46 PM
Granted it's a rough and tumble world out there when you are running for public office. Just witness the exchange New York gubenatorial candidate Carl Paladino had with reporters recently.
In a scene reminiscent of a mobster movie, the candidate took on a newspaper editor, wagging his finger and shouting pejorative terms. A shoving match ensued, and like kids in a playground scuffle, the two had to be separated.
At the Ethics Center we have a phrase to help people understand the importance of their own actions. "Model the behavior you wish to see in others."
I can only hope that the people of New York will ignore this type of behavior, and demand civility on the campaign trail.
Thursday, Sep. 30, 2010 10:44 AM
Long before the day of political polls and pundits, candidates met the public and each other in open debate. These mostly unscripted exchanges often took place outdoors, with a large and sometimes rowdy crowd in attendance.
The 1858 Lincoln and Douglas debate was actually a series of 7 meetings. There were no sound bites: the first man spoke for 60 minutes, the next for 90 minutes, followed by a 30 minute rebuttal.
Today the televised debates are a media production as much as political theater. Typically, the audience is hand-picked, the moderator sticks to a script, and the candidates don't really spar as much as they just "snap" at each other.
The first political debate I watched was between Richard Nixon and John F. Kennedy. The broadcast was in black and white; the stage was sparse and the lighting too bright. In comparison to what I've seen recently, the unvarnished nature of those early days seems nostalgic and authentic.
Wednesday, Sep. 29, 2010 4:15 PM
It's hard to be cynical about political campaigns when you hear about the candidates for mayor in Myrtle Creek, Oregon.
Both men who are runnning have nothing but praise for the opponent.
Dan Jocoy and Jeff Messner have agreed to "wage a friendly campaign that emphasizes their individual strengths rather than focusing on the other guy."
Their political platforms are similar: both candidates want to give back to the community, bring new jobs, and make sure their small town is well represented at the county and state levels.
The voters can't go wrong in this race. Each man has been named the town's "Man of the Year" and believe communication and personal integrity are essential ingredients for public officials.
I'd vote for that.
Wednesday, Sep. 29, 2010 3:58 PM
It's usually pretty difficult for an elected official to be removed from office. Unless there is a criminal indictment and conviction or a voter recall, most officeholders have a great deal of "job security."
That is, unless you serve on the Brunswick, Ohio city council. Earlier this week the council removed their colleague Anthony Capretta for a violation of the city charter.
The 5-1 vote was to uphold the city's ethics board recommendation. According to the city charter, members of the council cannot go directly to a department head to ask them to take an action. (Everything must go through the city manager.)
The councilmember called a city employee to complain about a constituent concern, which triggered the complaint and the comission hearings.
Capretta was charged with "interference with city administration," and the charter says that if the ruling of the ethics commission is upheld by the council the penalty is forfeiture of office.
As severe as this penalty may seem, it is refreshing to see a city take the charter seriously. Not all ethics commissions enjoy this level of support, and I commend the councimembers for their courageous act.
Tuesday, Sep. 28, 2010 4:51 PM
Voters are hearing the commercials, viewing the tv spots, and finding mailboxes filled to the brim with brochures. We're only weeks away from the November election.
But how important is this "final stretch" in the outcome?
Stuart Rothenberg says all the last-minute frenzy may make it even more difficult for voters to decide which way to vote.
The increase in popularity of absentee ballots means many individuals have already cast their ballots and have moved on with their lives.
The low approval ratings for both incumbents and the government in general is a reflection of the frustration and apathy felt at virtually all levels of government.
Even political junkies, policy wonks, and media observers like me are at the point of saturation.
Today's campaigns feel endless - and like the plot in the movie "Groundhog Day," each day becomes more frustrating than the last.
Tuesday, Sep. 28, 2010 4:11 PM
Like the middle child, a small city caught between two larger cities can have a difficult time getting attention.
Living below the radar may be what some politicians would favor, but the lack of media coverage can lead to a lack of accountability on the part of local government.
Such is the concern expressed by Ted Griffith, a resident of Burlington, Ontario, Canada. In an opinion piece Griffith describes the frustration of living in a city wedged between Toronto and Hamilton, cities commanding more than a fair amount of press.
"Without regular media oversight, our elected officials have to be of sufficient ethical character to police themselves, if not each other."
When I served in elected office the media could be both friend and foe. What is your experience?
Friday, Sep. 24, 2010 12:12 PM
Where do you go to find out how much has been spent on the governor's race in California? Is there a place to find a list of who is contributing money? Who is receiving it? How it is being spent?
Fortunately, that information and more is easily accessible at Cal-Access, the Web site of the California secretary of state.
With a click of the mouse, you can also locate copies of forms filled out by candidates for the CalPERS retirement board, check on lobbying activities, and access a calendar of important dates.
This on-line resource provides the transparency necessary for the public to determine how government is working. It allows the press to cover candidates and issues from across the state. The site is an important educational tool, especially during the campaign season. Voters would benefit from bookmarking this link and using the data as they evaluate candidates and ballot initiatives in November.
Friday, Sep. 24, 2010 11:55 AM
The inability of the California legislature to pass a budget has prompted the closing of freeway rest stops.
The law requires water at the stops to be tested weekly, but with no money coming from Sacramento, barriers will be put up at the entrance to some stops. Crews who maintain the rest areas are at risk of losing their jobs, and the closures are predicted to take a toll on all travelers, especially those who drive long-haul trucks.
This latest twist to the budget debacle is another indication of the lack of political courage among the legislators, and a discouraging reminder of their inability (or unwillingness) to compromise.
Thursday, Sep. 23, 2010 3:53 PM
When public officials travel, even if for official business, there are often questions about who paid for the trip, and why.
Such is the case in Madison, Wisconsin, where Mayor Dave Cieslewicz is being asked to justify a tour of bike-friendly cities in Europe.
Because the trip was sponsored by a bicycle industry group, it is unclear if the trip constitutes a violation of the city's ethics code.
To clear up the confusion the city's ethics board has proposed new language that would "allow city officials to go on trips paid for by third parties, but they would be subject to the city's travel regulations and spending limits."
This seems like a reasonable way to foster both transparency and accountability, while allowing public officials to take advantage of learning opportunities outside their city limits.
Thursday, Sep. 23, 2010 10:32 AM
Kimberly Cole is a member of the Lynwood, Washington, city council. She also works for the mayor of the nearby city of Edmonds, prompting some to question if those dual roles constitute a conflict of interest. The question becomes more complicated: she also serves on a board that oversees a public hosptal district in her county.
Holding more than one office sn't unusual in Washington, where people are allowed to hold multiple municipal elected offices -- as long as there the constituencies are not the same.
One must look at the role of each office (or job) to determine if it is possible to juggle both in a fair and impartial manner. There are opportunities for the lines to be blurred, as an employee seeks to do the best for his or her supervisor, even if that may interfere with council duties.
Cole previously worked for the county government, where her job involved more policy discussions.The mayor says she is more like an assistant in her current job.
Regardless of job title, when an elected official makes a phone call, appears before a legislative body, or addresses the public, it can be difficult to distinguish the elected official from the employee.
Although the "multiple office" provision is allowed by state election rules, it doesns't necessarily mean it is a best practice.
Wednesday, Sep. 22, 2010 3:51 PM
The arrest of the city manager and top elected officials in Bell, California, brought cheers from the residents of this small southern California city.
Corruption at city hall was rampant, primarily in the form of highly inflated salaries and benefits for both appointed and elected officials.
While many rejoice at the news of the arrests, I am deeply saddened by the realization that men and women who held the public trust could have so carelessly and arrogantly violated that trust.
Unfortunately we have many examples of elected officials gone wrong - but there are fewer examples of city managers who use the office for their own benefit. Perhaps that is because city and county managers have a resource to help guide their actions.
The International City/County Managers Association (ICMA) has worked with professional city administrators for more than 85 years.
The organization first adopted a Code of Ethics in 1924. The document has been amended over the years to to address changes in the profession.
The code contains 12 tenets to guide local government managers to perform ethically and with integrity.
The tenets are clear, straightforward, and set the highest standards for conduct. Managers are asked to be dedicated to effective and democratic local government, and to act with transparency, political neutrality, and" respect for the rights and responsibiity of elected officials and residents."
The Code of Ethics is a model for all involved in public service.