The myriad of ethics laws can be confusing, often leading to unintended violations by public officials. In an attempt to clear things up, the Office of Government Ethics plans to simplify its website to assist federal employees, the public, and the press understand the rules regarding conflicts of interest.
According to deputy director Joseph Gangloff, the current website, contains so many pages of documents that it is difficult to find the rules of professional conduct.
In addition to publishing the results of audits and reviews of federal agencies, the office now has a studio for producing on-line training videos.
The office has a staff of 80, and serves some 300,000 employees. Using the Internet and new technology should take some of the "mystery" out of the federal bureaucracy.
The university president's private residence, whether for a public or private institution, is often used for large fundraising events, meetings with trustees, and other high-profile business and social occasions.
Rather than live at the presidental mansion (itself in need of $10 million in repairs), the Yudofs leased a 10,000-square-foot, four-story house and began upgrades, including air conditioning, 12 phones,and repair of a a two-person elevator. The university system also spent more than $127,000 in security for the two years the president was in residence.
The repairs were paid by a private endowment. According to the New York Times, most of the transactions were discussed and negotiated out of public view. The president recently moved to a new, smaller home and is paying a slightly lower rent.
The leader of a public university system, like his or her counterpart in cities, counties, and other legislative bodies, must set the tone in both word and deed. The message here was one of privilege rather than one of prudence.
A Grand Jury investigation showed the three had violated the Brown Act. a California open-meeting law that prohibits a majority of a governing body to discuss city business outside a public meeting. The rule has been the subject of greater scrutiny with the advent of e-mail, text messaging, and the use of Facebook and other social media.
The "sunshine" laws, as they are called in some states, are designed to ensure that the decsion-making process takes place in a public forum.
It is important for public officials to understand both the letter and spirit of the law with regard to openess and transparency. There are penalties for violating these rules -- including hefty fines from state ethics agencies. These councilmembers suffered the greatest punishment : they were thrown out of office by an overwhelming majority of voters.
The City Hall "beat" no longer exists at most newspapers, even as public scrutiny of government is at an all-time high. So it was with concern that I read of the decision by the University of Colorado, Boulder, to close their school of journalism and mass communications.
The chancellor says this is an attempt to keep up with changes in the industry. "News and communications transmission as well as the role of the press and journalism in a democratic society are changing at a tremendous pace. We must change with it."
Plans are to investigate restructuring the program to create a new school incorporating an advertising sequence, newswriting and reporting classes and television on-air and production classes.
As a journalism school graduate I applaud the vision to expand and keep up with the changes in the industry. I only hope that they don't drop some of the most fundamental classes, including how to report state and local news.
We warn our children to be careful when posting information on Facebook or other social networking sites, but in Allentown, PA, it was a posting by the mayor's wife that triggered an ethics complaint.
After a blogger read Mrs. Pawlowski's description of the contractors who would be working in her basement, he posted a message asking if the proper permits were pulled for the work.
The ethics charges also question whether or not the mayor received a "questionably low" bid from the contractor, who does business with the city. Over a four-year period, employees of the construction firm contributed $10,000 to the mayor.
When you are a public servant, your private life often becomes the subject of public scrutiny. In this case, the political leader of the city cannot expect his constituents to pay for building permits if he has not obtained permits for for his own projects. When in doubt, it is wise to follow all the rules, lest you appear to be above the law.
Misuse of city property comes in many forms. "Borrowing" the tools from the city's automotive shop or sending your holiday cards using city postage are obvious violations. But a recent incident in Tulsa shows there are other ethical lines that can easily be crossed.
By supplying his wife with business cards that include the official city seal and a city email address, Mayor Dewey Bartlett appears to have violated a city ordinance that restricts the use of the seal to activites that are official or further the work of the municipal government.
The issue came to light after an employee filed an anonymous complaint with Tulsa's Ethics Advisory Committee. The mayor has apologized, saying he didn't mean to offend anyone. A city official says the cards cost $16 a box.
The fact that her husband is thankful "for all the great work she has done for the community" does not excuse this lapse. The cost is not the relevant issue, although reaction from residents indicate that in this economy, any use of taxpayer dollars is important.
In a letter to employees explaining the newly mandated ethics training program, the mayor wrote "The standards of conduct for public employees are higher than those governing the private sector."
Agreed, and the mayor should be the first to model the highest ethical stardards and set the tone for all employees.
I once heard a municipal ethics officer say "We don't have to make up these stories. We get them for free."
The stories, of course, were the many ethics complaints filed with his commission. While some were of a serious nature (conflicts of interest, nepotism, for example) many came just prior to an election and were frivolous or politically motivated.
Filing ethics complaints against candidates is not new, and some of the charges are held to be true. But a disturbing trend among campaign strategists is to "dirty up" the other candidate just before election day. Sometimes the strategy is to file a suit disputing the ballot statement, so that early in the race a candidate is left defending the statement and is not focusing on the issues.
One reason many cities hesitate to establish ethics commissions, or have trouble recruiting individuals to serve, is because there is this potential to politicize the work of the commission.
LeeAnn Pelham, executive director of the Los Angeles Ethics Commission says many think of these bodies as simply enforcement agencies, and do not fully appreciate the education and advisory functions they serve.
No city should shy away from establishing a strong ethics program based on the misuse of programs elsewhere. In this age of greater voter apathy and skepticism, ethics commissions can provide a reassuring role for the electorate and candidate alike.
Reading more like the National Enquirer than a news source, the story conjures up a statewide ethical crisis in California with phrases like "government gone wild."
We know that the elected and appointed officials in Bell captured national attention and ire because of grossly inflated salaries. The problems in Bell have caused neighboring Maywood to suffer as well. After losing insurance coverage, the city dismissed virtually all employees and contracted out services, some to Bell. Now Maywood residents are feeling a double whammy -- their own problems compounded by the behavior uncovered in Bell.
While there are pockets of ethics problems in virtually every state, these incidents hardly constitute the "long-runninng saga of corruption" described in the AOL story. The California legislature is considering new guidelines for disclosure and transparency, but ultimately it is up to the public to be engaged with their local government. With the lack of city council news coverage, the public will need to take on the role of "political watchdog."
Talk radio, I discovered this week, is not intended to promote civil discourse. I was invited to be a "live" guest for a 20-minute segment of "drive time" talk radio this week. We were to discuss the recent revelations about the excessive salaries of top officials in Bell, California, and the receipt of gifts by elected officials.
The runup to the show included loud music and the voice of a man screaming "We're not going to take it any more!"
As I tried to understand the questions of the host I realized there were none: just outrageous statements and random comments designed to stir up a crowd.
I survived a similar experience with a television interview earlier in the week, so this time I was prepared to educate the public about ethics regardless of the circumstances.
The more calm my voice, the more "hard charging" the host became. Repeating my facts and suggesting the importance of facts in discussing complex issues probably did not help the station's ratings, but I finished with the hope that somewhere out there, a listener will think more clearly and bring light, not heat, to future discussions.
As cities throughout California are stripping programs to bare bones, this city of 40,000 residents was paying its city manager almost $800,000. The part-time city council members earned $100,000.
Chris McKenzie, executive director of the League, said "We are unaware of any city where salaries of this level are paid for comparable positions."
Amid the embarrasment of the publicity, top administrators have resigned, councilmembers are reducing their salaries, even as residents call for the mayor and council to resign.
This abuse of power gives a black eye to all the hard-working, ethical public officials who put the public's interest above their own personal and financial interests. Fortunately, Bell is an exception, not the rule for local government.
While police and fire unions have remained strong during recent budget discussions, the city of San Carlos, California has voted to outsource city police services to the San Mateo County Sheriff's Office. With a lone dissenting vote, the city council made the decision in anticipation of an annual yearly savings of approximately $2 million, helping close a $3.5 million deficit. San Carlos has nearly 28,000 residents.There are 23 officers in the department.
A November ballot initiative to undo the decision faces hurdles, and a special election would cost the city $100,000. Despite that fact, the union representatives vow to bring back the department. even if the union no longer exists in the new configuration.
In tight budget times, it takes creativity and courage to bridge the gap. The council appears to have shown that. But huge deficits also require sacrifice and compromise, and the unions and all employees should share that burden.
Bickering, backstabbing, and Brown Act violations were among the criticisms recently levied against the City of South Lake Tahoe, California.
In its report, the El Dorado County grand jury itemized both general and specific governance problems in the city, In addition to criticizing the city manager and city attorney as well as the mayor and council members, the document questions the pervasive nepotism in city employment, and suggests the council and staff obey written policies rather than making decisions based on "past practices."
According to the Tahoe Daily Tribune, "the Grand Jury only touched the ‘tip of the iceberg' in its investigation and recommends that the citizens of South Lake Tahoe get involved with their City government. It is up to the citizens to establish the kind of governance they desire, to exercise their democratic right to vote, and get a City government that works for the common good and in an efficient manner for its citizens.”
The occasional flare up at a council meeting may be excused, but humiliating comments, poliically charged language, and a lack of respect cannot be tolerated at any level of government.
The grand jury makes numerous recommendations, including ethics training. Ultimately it s up to the community to demand the highest level of deliberation and diplomacy from the city council. Let's hope they speak up and insist on reform.
As I have been following the budget crisis impact cities, schools and special districts, counties, and state governments, I've been trying to figure out how this mess can be fixed. I may have found the answer in an unlikely place: a fortune cookie.
Along with my lucky numbers came the following wisdom: "Cooperation will work better."
Not a new idea, I will admit, but one that seems to be our only hope for both understanding the problem and for taking steps to resolve it.
A recent Sacramento Press article breaks down public finance by explaining how many players are involved and what happens to the stakeholders -- the public-- when behind the scenes bartering or political gridlock occurs.
July 1 is a day many in public service are dreading. We will know which programs have been saved, along with those that will be reduced or eliminated. For many Californians, the July 4 holiday may not be a celebration after all.
A recent U.S. Supreme Court ruling says the city of Ontario, California did not violate an employee's privacy rights in reviewing the messages on his city-issued pager.
The review was conducted when records showed a police sergant's monthly pager charges were significantly more when compared with other individuals in the department.
In an attempt to research if the city's pager plan should be changed, the city reviewed the messages, finding that of the 456 messages he sent and received during a one-month period, only 57 were work related.
The employee argued the city had no constiutional right to this "search and seizure." The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in his favor, but the Supreme Court maintained because the review was work-related it did not violate his Fourth Amendment rights.
As pagers, cell phones, and other electronic devices become even more a part of our personal and work lives, it is essential for employees to remember the use of public property for private use is prohibited. The new technology is tempting. This serves as a reminder that we expect public employees to be both productive and prudent in using city assets.
In the city of Muncie, Indiana, citizens have decided that adopting a uniform code of ethics for local government is at the top of their "Action Plan."
Of the 50 initiatives presented to the voters, ethics ranked first. If adopted, the code would apply to all government officials, including officeholders, that "provides guidance in the loyalty, service, and integrity expected of them." It would also require hiring a registered parliamentarian who would be at each council meeting.
An editorial in The Muncie Star Press acknowledges the importance of such an initiative, but points out how difficult it will be to determine the success of such a code.
Granted, measuring the success of an ethics program can be challenging, but it is well worth the effort. It can be measured in small but significant actions, such as treating everyone with respect, and putting the citizens needs above any personal or political gain.
"Those who fail to act ethically risk the wrath of voters," according to the editorial. "And that might be the best way to measure progress on this issue."
The Santa Clara County Civil Grand Jury says Water Distict Chairman Richard Santos has crossed the ethical line in dealing with decisions that have direct financial benefts to him.
The controversy centers around several multi-million dollar developments made on land adjacent to property owned by Santos. In all, he hs an ownership interest in 23 properties in the tiny community in San Jose known as Alviso.
While the water district board member insists he won't profit personally from these enhancements, there is a clear perception that his advocacy and inconsistent voting abstentions make this look like a a conflict of interest.
Santos' actions have blurred the line between his position as a long-time resident and civic booster and his role as a representative elected to look out of the needs of all his constituents, regardless of where they iive.
Cities are facing major budget disasters, but there is no BP escrow account to bail them out.
Police, fire, libraries, summer swim programs, and meals for needy seniors are among the services on the chopping block.
While huge underfunded public pensions and the increase in health care costs are among the issues blamed for the current crisis, many other factors have contributed to this "perfect storm."
When times were good, and the dot-com economy brought prosperity to many local agencies, it was easier to spend the "extra" money than to save it. More officers on the street, and more frequent street sweeping all seemed like good ideas. And they were -- as long as there was money to cover the cost.
In trying to explain to a frustrated neighbor how local government got into this mess and how to get out, I used a simple example.
In deciding on whether or not to subscribe to cable television you first determine how much money you have to spend and what kind of service you want. If money is no object, you may subscribe to the premium channel.
Months later your car needs major repair, the roof is leaking, and your health insurance premium has doubled. This is the time to look at what is truly important to you, what you are willing to sacrifice in order to cover the cost of your essentials. You may decide to change to basic cable or cancel the service enirely. But you cannot continue as though there has been no change to your expenses while your revenue remains stagnant or is reduced.
The same kinds of considerations, but on much larger and more politically charged subjects, face legislators. Citizens must learn more about how government works and speak up at community and budget hearings. Political leaders must make difficult choices, knowing that not everyone will be happy with the outcome.
We have an ethical obligation to use the public's money as we would our own - in a responsible and realistic way. It may mean reducing or cutting popular programs, but political courage is what the voters expect and deserve.
According to Webster's New World Law Dictionary, the legal definition of deep pocket is "a person or entity that has significant financial resources and is therefore an attractive target for litigation."
What this doesn't describe are the practical and ethical issues facing government officials when someone files a lawsuit against the city.
These issues were discussed at a recent Public Sector Roundtable hosted by the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics. Legal experts shared perspectives with elected officials and a police chief, in an effort to determine when to litigate versus when to settle.
You can read the summary as well as several case studies by visiting the Roundtable page, where you will find information on previous sessions and details on the upcoming August event.