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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 Constitutes A Conflict Of Interest?

    Thursday, Sep. 23, 2010

    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.



  •  City Managers Have Standards To Uphold

    Wednesday, Sep. 22, 2010

    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.



  •  Ethics Rules To Apply To Nonprofit Groups

    Wednesday, Sep. 22, 2010

    In the wake of a scandal involving the Tampa, Florida, zoo, the mayor is proposing new ethics rules that would apply to nonprofit groups.

    If adopted, the  guidelines would require all nonprofit groups receiving funding from the city to limit financial dealings with certain senior level staff, require the adoption of conflict of interest policies, and establish rules prohibiting nepotism. The proposal also includes protection for whistleblowers.

    A significant provision would require the groups to make their financial statements available to the city, including information on how much board members are paid.

    John Bell, of the Tampa Theatre, says "We understand the need for transparency, to safeguard the taxpayers." His organization is located on city property and receives approximately $200,000 per year from the city.

  •  Taking The Politics Out Of Ethics Investigations

    Tuesday, Sep. 21, 2010

    Selecting members for an ethics board can be fraught with controversy. "Citizen" members, individuals from the community who are chosen by the city council, often face criticism for being aligned with those who appointed them. Any hint of favoritsm destroys the integrity of the board's decisions.

    Following what the Atlanta Constitution-Journal  describes as "political drama surrounding an ethics investigation" of a former Milton, Georgia councilwoman, the city has adopted a new ordinance to change the makeup of the board.

    The city will now choose from a group of 9 to 15 non-resident attorneys to handle ethics investigations. The board will be reduced to three members, who would be paid for each day they spend on a hearing.

    There are many ways to select this important body, and one size does not fit all jurisdictions. The key, says the Georgia Municipal Association, is to remove politics from the appointment process.

  •  The Power Of Invisible Money In Campaigns

    Monday, Sep. 20, 2010

    According to the IRS, in order to be issued a 501 (c) (3) designation, an organization must be organized and operated for "exempt" purposes, and may not engage in political activities.

    But few members of the public are aware of another section of the IRS code that allows advocacy committees to engage in political campaigns -- and avoid the transparency required by other contribution rules. Most of the money goes to federal elections, often for "opposition" ads.

    According to The New York Times, if an organization is a 501 (c) (4) it can collect an unlimited amount of money from corporations and spend that war chest without revealing the source of the donations.

    The result is a dramatic drop in the number of independent groups reporting the source of their contributions.

    Money influences the outcome of elections. The task ahead is  to convince Congress to change the rules to make donors visible and campaigns and candidates accountable.

  •  States Should Strengthen Open Meeting Laws

    Monday, Sep. 20, 2010

    In Mississippi, if an elected official violates the open meeting law, he or she is not fined -- the legislative body pays the $100 penalty.

    Tom Hood, director of the state Ethics Commission, says this system takes responsibility away from the individual. He has suggested a stronger law that would increase the fine to $1,000 per penalty, and make the individual office holders accountable.

    Although neither proposal has been adopted by the legislature, Hood and others who spoke at a recent Freedom of Information panel also urge adoption of new regulations aking it easier for the public to access email and other records.

    "If we don't know what our elected officials are doing in our name with our money, then we're not living in a democracy -- and we can't make informed decisions about who to vote for (or) any kind of issue that's in the public debate."

  •  Will Time Travel Solve California's Budget Woes?

    Friday, Sep. 17, 2010

    When French writer Jules Verne published his travel novel in 1873, he imagined a trip around the world in 80 days.

    If only the California legislature could follow suit and adopt a budget. Today marks the 79th day the state has gone without closing the $19 billion budget gap. It's a record for the state, but not one that should invoke pride.

    While the legislators fight over what cuts to make and whether or not to add taxes to increase revenues, state employees are still taking furlough days, and cities and counties are anxious about what impact the final budget will have on local operations.

    I find it ironic that in Around the World in Eighty Days, Phileas Fogg set out on an adventure based on a wager by his friends at the Reform Club. Reform sounds like a pretty good idea for lawmakers to consider -- once they pass the budget.

  •  Respecting Citizens Shows Respect for Democratic Process

    Friday, Sep. 17, 2010

    In some cities, council meetings are more like bad reality TV than than legislative deliberation.

    Residents of Vancouver, Washington are struggling to understand why a councilwoman, who teaches mediation and leadership classes to public officials, could show such disrespect for the public and her council colleagues.

    At the Ethics Center we often say "Model the behavior you wish to see in others." This is especially true for public officials, whose actions are  scrutinized (and televised), and who set the tone for civil discourse in public meetings.

    The public has a right to speak, even if what they say is unpopular. Elected officials have a responsibility to listen, even if they disagree.

    Running a council meeting during a heated debate requires skill, patience, and judicious use of the gavel. And when things begin to get out of control, calling for a recess -- time out --can be an effective strategy.


  •  Budget Constraints Should Not Limit Infrastructure Maintenance

    Thursday, Sep. 16, 2010

    Although the investigation is ongoing, preliminary results show the recent natural gas pipeline explosion in San Bruno, California may have been averted if proper maintenance had been performed.

    Most residents don't think about what goes on below the city streets unless a sewer backs up or a water main leaks. This disaster is an example of the importance of on-going inspection and repair of our aging infrastructure.

    The collapse of a bridge, break in a levee, or explosion of a pipeline should not be the trigger to check structural stability. The loss of life and property reminds us that, even in difficult economic times, we must not put off attention to the not-so-glamorous but very important basics.

  •  Would You Be Willing To Serve On An Ethics Board?

    Thursday, Sep. 16, 2010

    Recruiting individuals to serve on an ethics board can be like seeking volunteers for a root canal -- don't expect too many folks to step forward.

     Hartford, Connecticut has been without three of its nine members for months, even though the state law says vacancies must be filled within 30 days.

    The problem occurs across the country, where these important watchdog commissions are learning that the high profile and many restrictions that go along with the job can serve as a deterrent to applicants.

    There is clearly a need to have dedicated and competent commissioners, especially during the campaign season when many charges are levied. But if you must file financial disclosures and are subjected to criticism in high-pressure and politically sensitive investigations, it's no wonder the positions go unfilled.

    Ethics boards serve an important oversight function, allowing the public to have more confidence in the political system and forcing accountability in government.

    We should take a look at the obstacles that stand in the way of attracting good candidates, and devise a fair and open system that would encourage greater participation by the community.

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