Judy Nadler, senior fellow in government ethics at the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics, looks at ethical dilemmas, scandals, and best practices in government.
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.
Wednesday, Sep. 22, 2010 9:14 AM
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.
Tuesday, Sep. 21, 2010 9:25 AM
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.
Monday, Sep. 20, 2010 2:35 PM
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.
Monday, Sep. 20, 2010 11:38 AM
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."
Friday, Sep. 17, 2010 11:16 AM
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.
Friday, Sep. 17, 2010 10:40 AM
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.
Thursday, Sep. 16, 2010 4:07 PM
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.
Thursday, Sep. 16, 2010 2:24 PM
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.
Wednesday, Sep. 15, 2010 3:18 PM
Political campaigns are increasingly using the Internet to deliver messages, but not all the Web sites are what they purport to be.
The New York Times reports that many individuals are snatching up domain names that direct readers to a site that is opposed to the named candidate.
According to the Coalition Against Domain Name Abuse not all legislators are aware of domain name "cyber squatters" until they try to obtain an Internet address with their name.
If readers click on BobMenendez.com, for example, they might assume they will reach the Web site of New Jersey Senator Menendez. In fact, they will be directed to a site belonging to a Republican candiate for senate in Nevada, who uses the site to bash Democrats.
The Web sites are often purchased to be re-sold to the legitimate name holder, but increasingly these portals are used in for unethical campaigning.
The Electronic Frontier Foundations says the practice "can be a form of political activism." But when you know that a man in Florida named Joseph Culligan owns more than 500 political domain names, there is cause for concern.
Virtually all the variations of William J. Clinton were snatched up by Culligan, and Clinton's efforts to sue to "recover" his name were unsuccessful.
Each individual should take responsibility for his or her reputation. It is difficult to protect your integrity when someone else has appropriated your name.
Ethical campaigns are built on honesty, trust, and transparency. Tactics such as this take us in the wrong direction.
Tuesday, Sep. 14, 2010 9:55 AM
Medical marijuana dispensaries present multiple challenges to cities in California. Since the voters approved leagalizing marijuana in 1996, cities across the state have struggled with political, land use, and law enforcement issues.
In response to this confusion, the San Diego city council recently voted to create a special zoning designation for the dispensaries.
Under the proposal, dispensaries would be allowed in certain industrial and commercial zones where there are no residences. While none could be sited near schools, day care centers, religious institutions, parks and youth centers, there was no exclusion of proximity to colleges and universities. This is a provision that could be addressed when a proposed ordinance comes forward later this year.
Because all cities are struggling with this issue, a piecemeal approach-- where each jurisdiction creates its own rules--could lead to enforcement problems and a concentration of dispensaries in communities with fewer regulations.
The siting of medical marijuana dispensaries should be done with cities and counties collaborating on ordinances, and sharing best practices.
Monday, Sep. 13, 2010 3:04 PM
The dictionary defines nepotism as favoritism - such as in an appointment to a job -- based on kinship. This notion has been around for decades, and has created serious ethical problems in government.
One new form of nepotism comes not from appointing a family member to a job, but granting a relative a scholarship.
Two members of the U.S. House of Representatives have recently admitted they awarded scholarships to family members through the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation.
The non-profit organization has clearly defined parameters for scholarships, including prohibiting government officials from using the awards to benefit themselves.
Georgia Congressman Sanford Bishop says he did nothing wrong, insisting that when he made the awards, "there were not very clear guidelines."
Guidelines aside, public officials should use common sense and know it is unethical to use your official position to benefit family, friends, or business partners.
Monday, Sep. 13, 2010 12:34 PM
The mayor is the political leader of a city, and as such sets the tone for the council and community. Perhaps that is why councilmembers in a Minnesota city are voting today on whether to censure Mayor John Brady for a recent drunk driving arrest.
The author of the resolution says "the actions and arrest of Mayor John Brady brought ridicule and shame to the City of Mankato, and has damaged the credibility of the City of Mankato in its efforts to control alcohol abuse."
Despite the pending vote, the mayor says he won't resign, and at least one councilmember has said the issue of Brady's tenure is "up to the voters and only the voters."
This is not the first nor will it be the last time that a public official has been arrested in an action not related to city business.
It calls to attention the continuing need for serious discourse on the expectations put on public officials when they are acting as private citizens.
Friday, Sep. 10, 2010 2:36 PM
In my role mayor of Santa Clara, and now as an employee of Santa Clara University, I have a unique opportunity to see both sides of the "town-gown" relationship.
An upcoming conference hosted by the City of Riverside and the University of California, Riverside hopes to provide some insights for local officials as well as campus leaders and university staff. The discussion is part of a nationwide effort to bridge the divide between these two groups.
The meeting, scheduled for October 7 and 8, will offer best practices for effective partnerships, and show how cities/towns and colleges/universities can effectively work together to bring about economic recovery in their communities.
Friday, Sep. 10, 2010 10:57 AM
Two candidates for the San Juan Capistrano city council have decided not to sign a voluntary fair campaign practices pledge.
This form is given to each candidate running for office in California, a requirement of the California Elections Code. Although violating the principles does not carry any penalty, the code is an affirmation designed to remind candidates to conduct their campaigns in an ethical manner.
Candidates Jim Reardon and Clint Worthington decided they were "skeptical about the way the pledge reads." They both say they object to signing the document "on principle."
There is nothing confusing or scary about this pledge. It boils down to the Golden Rule, prohibiting such things as character defamation or engaging in a "whispering campaign." It also asks candidates to immediately denounce any unethical behavior by their supporters.
All the other candidates in the race have signed, but the two holdouts maintain they will run ethical campaigns, even without the promises implied in the pledge.
The voters should take note. The code was established to remind candidates to conduct themselves with integrity and to allow the voters to hold candidates accountable.
Campaign behavior is often a harbinger of officeholder behavior. If that proves to be true in this instance, the community should be even more selective at the voting booth.
Thursday, Sep. 9, 2010 3:12 PM
For the last 21 years Richard M. Daley has served as mayor of Chicago. Yesterday he announced he will not run for a seventh term, surprising his staff, his constituents, and all of us who think Daley when we think of the Windy City.
During my tenure as mayor of Santa Clara I had the opportunity to work with Mayor Daley. He served as president of the U.S. Conference of Mayors, and I was chair of the Energy Committee. Unlike some "big city" mayors who are figureheads on committees, he was deeply involved in the workings of this national network of mayors.
Daley had charisma, curiosity, and a can-do attitude. He made leadership look easy. But in his many years as a public servant he took on some of the city's greatest challenges: crime, poverty, a failed school system. Balancing the city budget while protecting essential services, leasing assets such as the city's parking meter system, and attracting both large and small businesses to Chicago are among his many accomplishments.
In addition to addressing these "bread and butter" issues, the mayor served as a champion of the arts. In 2004 he opened Millennium Park, a spectacular public-private partnership. Combining stunning architecture and works of art, the park features many amenities such as a theater for music and dance, a state-of-the-art bicycle station, and an ice skating rink.
For all the amazing things he accomplished as mayor, one of my favorites is his "green roof" initiative. Ten years ago, after Daley and his wife saw rooftops in Europe planted with gardens, the green roof movement in Chicago began. Appropriately, it started with City Hall, which showcases more than 100 plant species, including native prairie grasses. He also led the city to adopt energy standards for new public buildings, to ensure they could receive certification from the U.S. Green Building Council’s Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) program.
When he leaves office in seven months his depature will be felt immediately. Fortunately, his legacy will be felt for many years to come.
Tuesday, Sep. 7, 2010 4:08 PM
Keeping a high, positive public profile is a good political strategy for elected officials. Some have great success: they have discovered an easy way to raise and give away money for good causes by setting up charitable foundations.
In California, a congressman has established the Joe Baca Foundation, giving away everything from free sports clinics to college scholarships and spare boots for firefighters. What makes this foundation different than family foundations? The money comes from large corporations with business before Congress.
While most companies say the donations are part of a corporate culture to "give back to the community" there is at least one that admitted another purpose. Tom Williams of Duke Energy said "the company participates in lawmakers' charitable events in part to gain access to them and push its agenda."
With an increasing number of these foundations comes an ethical dilemma: how to separate the private good from the political benefit. As long as reporting loopholes remain, this type of year-round unlimited fundraising gives the impression of "pay-to-play," and is damaging both to the donor and recipient.
Friday, Sep. 3, 2010 2:40 PM
Most school boards fly "under the radar" but in El Paso, Texas, several members have been indicted by the federal government on racketeering charges. They were joined by the mayor of Socorro and a former county judge, proving that no one is above the law when it comes to public corruption.
The charges,based on the Racketeer Influenced Corruption Law (RICO), involve Access HealthSource. The company provided serevices to several school districts as well as the county of El Paso. The individuals involved are alleged to have sold votes in order to award contracts to Access.
The 10 who were indicted join a group of school board members, a county commissioner, and the county chief of staff who previously pleaded guilty.
This sad news is yet another reminder that all types of public agencies -- especially legislative, judicial, and educational -- must be scrutinized to ensure integrity and ethical decision making.
Thursday, Sep. 2, 2010 3:06 PM
Timing is everything. As a hurricane heads toward the eastern coast of the United States, President Obama has declared September as National Preparedness Month.
What have we learned in the five years since New Orleans was devastated by Katrina? We know that recovery is a slow and expensive process. It's clear that communication and coordination between many agencies is vital within the first hours and days of the disaster.
While the news centered around the problems in New Orleans, many smaller cities nearby --such as Biloxi--were crippled as well. And we learned that individuals must be ready to take care of themselves, and not rely on the police, firefighters, or National Guard.
When the sun is shining and skies are blue, it is easy to put community preparedness on the back burner.
This month's presidential proclamation should serve as a poignant reminder that protecting our communities should be a priority, not an after thought.
Thursday, Sep. 2, 2010 10:41 AM
The relationship between money and politics should be a key part of news coverage, according to veteran CBS broadcaster Dan Rather.
In a recent interview Rather said journalists need to ask "Who is giving what to whom, expecting to get what?"
Rather, who retired from CBS and is now anchor and managing editor of HDNet's "Dan Rather Reports," says focusing political coverage on public opinion polling and "horse-race reporting" focuses only on a snapshot of a campaign, and does not fully inform the public.
The temptation is for journalists to become "transcribers who simply write down what they hear without asking tough questions." At age 78, Rather remains involved and passionate about news coverage, especially on political issues. An independent press, he says, "is the red beating heart of freedom and democracy, and it's absolutely essential to our system."