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.
These words, spoken by at least two former U.S. presidents, are an indication of how difficult it is for most of us to admit we have made a mistake.
In her new book, "Being Wrong: Adventures In The Margin Of Error," author Kathryn Schulz examines why it is hard for us to admit our errors, but how easy it is to point out when someone else has made a mistake. In her interview on NPR, Schulz discusses "why we make so many mistakes, why we find them hard to admit, and what to do about it."
The political world (and the campaign season) show the many ways candidates and officeholders explain their decisions and actions.
The Oxford American Dictionary has even given us at least seven ways to explain when things go wrong: blunder, mistake, error, slip, faux pas, goof, and blooper. Each carries a different connotation, from benign to catastrophic failure.
We were all taught to tell the truth, and yet it is nearly impossible for some in public life to admit when things go wrong. No one wants to share the fact that, upon reflection, approving the expansion of the shopping center was a mistake. How many planners or administrators are willing to admit mathematical errors in coming up with the cost of the sewage treatment plant?
Given the gravity of the fiscal crisis in all levels of government, in business, academics, and health care, a good dose of truth and accountability would be welcome.
Organized by Utahns for Ethical Government, the petition is spearheaded by Ken Burningham, a former state legislator who was joined by 39 other retired elected officials in trying to open government. If passed, the legislation would, among other things, ban gifts by lobbyists to legislators, place caps on personal and PAC donations to candidates, create ethics training for legislators and their staff, and ban corporations from giving directly to candidates. The bill would also apply a strict ethical code for the lawmakers.
The group, undaunted by falling 20,000 signatures short of the 94,652 needed to qualify for the November ballot, plan to spend the summer gathering more names, looking ahead to the 2012 election.
Of particular note is their pledge to gather the names without the assistance of any pay-per-signature organizations. The campaign has cost just $70,000, paying for brochures, petitions, clipboards, and a staff member. The cost of the "shoe leather" and dedication of the advocates is priceless.
The last two weeks of a political campaign can be bruising --to the voters and the candidates. In San Jose, California, a particularly negative mailer, designed to mislead the voters and stir anger in the Vietnamese community, has marred a four-way race for city council.
Because ethical campaigns are vital to maintaining public confidence in government, the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics has reached out to the candidates in the District 5 race, offering guidelines for the remainder of the race. The center has also offered an opportunity for each candidate to re-affirm a commitment to ethics by signing a Pledge of Fair Campaign Practices. The California Code includes a pledge that these candidates have already signed, but the new document is another way to demonstrate to voters that the candidates and their supporters will conduct a fair campaign.
Pledge of Fair Campaign Practices
Note: this is a proposed update and expansion of the Code of Fair Campaign Practices presently distributed by elections officials for candidates to sign. It was written by the Institute for Local Government, the research and education affiliate of the League of California Cities and the California State Association of Counties.
There are basic principles of honesty, fairness, responsibility and respect to which every candidate for public office should adhere in order to worthy of the public office that that candidate seeks. Candidates who fall short of adhering to such principles alienate the public from the electoral process and erode the public’s trust and confidence in the offices that those candidates seek.
THEREFORE, as a candidate for public office, I pledge to conform my campaign to the following principles:
My campaign for public office will adhere to principles of honesty, fairness, responsibility and respect.
My campaign communications will present only fair, relevant and truthful information to the voters for their consideration of my candidacy and those of my opponents.
The timing of my communications will be such that my opponents will have a meaningful opportunity to respond to any claims I make concerning their positions or qualifications to hold office.
I will not take advantage of any position I hold in the public, private or nonprofit sectors to pressure people to support my candidacy with either campaign contributions or other election help.
Irrelevant information includes appeals to prejudices based on race, sex, sexual preferences, religion, national origin, physical health status, or age, as well as information concerning the candidate’s family.
I will present my positions and record candidly and forthrightly, so that the voters can judge my candidacy for office.
I will document all assertions my campaign makes in campaign communications.
I support full participation the electoral process and will take no action to discourage such participation.
I will immediately and publicly repudiate those who take actions that either help my candidacy or hurt my opponents’ candidacy which are inconsistent with this pledge of campaign conduct.
I will treat my opponents with courtesy and civility, even when we disagree about what is best for voters served by the office I seek.
The Ethics Center has been assisting candidates and newly elected officials for more than 10 years. Our Web site has a variety of case studies and other materials related to public service.
Transparency -- the ability for the people to "see" how government works -- is a fundamental principle in a democracy. Open meeting laws, also called "sunshine laws" are meant to expose the deliberations and voting records of elected officials.
But a little known practice in the United States Senate called "secret holds" allows legislators to secretly object to a presidential nominee. An effort to force disclosure (a provision that would require senators admit their "hold" in the Congressional Record after six days) has failed. Democratic Claire McCaskill of Missouri has taken to the senate floor to urge consideration of those nominees on "hold." So far her efforts have been shot down.
Although the practice is believed to be used by both parties, key opposition to making the holds public came from Republican Senator Jon Kyl of Arizona. He issued a press release that says, in part, "disclosing so-called secret holds is not the fundamental problem."
I'm not sure what definition he uses to describe fundamental (the dictionary suggests essential, primary, basic), but to the members of the public accountability on the part of elected officials surely fits the description.
Have you ever thought about the qualities you would like to see in your city councilmembers? In a letter to the editor of the Redlands, California Daily Facts, reader Bob Gardner breaks it down into a few simple attributes: "the ability to assess government performance and results from available revenue; a strong sense of ethics and courage; and the ability to communicate to citizens and others effectively."
In giving details, Gardner asks for a candidate who is humble, committed to public service, "and who will demonstrate that through the ethical conduct of his/her campaign and succeeding term if elected."
The perfect candidate would also set limits to campaign contributions and encourage others to do lilkewise, limiting total campaign spending.
Transparency is also an important attribute, requiring the disclosure of all business and personal investments while campaigning and in office.
Gardner is seeking a communicator who will look for common ground and help build consensus.
Although this description of the ideal candidate may sound like a naive wish list, these individuals live in every community across our country. We need them to step forward and show that voters looking for ethics and integrity in public office are not dreamers, but yearning for change.
When I was growing up, we held a cupcake sale at my school twice a month. The home-made treats cost a nickle, and the proceeds went to fund the end-of-the-year parties for each grade level. Not much money was raised, but the parties were in the classroom and not at an amusement park or a swim club, as is often the case now.
Today, the students at Mountain View High School are trying to figure out how to raise $50,000 in unexpected expenses accrued when they were stranded in Europe during a recent concert tour.
After working to raise the money to travel in the first place, they are now faced with the task of of a second round of asking for financial help.
This is an extreme example, perhaps, because of the unexpected volcano eruption, but it points out a troubling trend in education today: students and parents forced to raise money for basic needs such as a school librarian or guidance counselor.
Whether it be selling greeting cards, magazine subscriptions, wrapping paper, candy bars, or frozen cookie dough (I'm not kidding about that one), our students are spending time hitting up friends and family rather than studying geometry.
Unlike the Girl Scouts, a voluntary organization that everyone knows sells cookies, the pressure is on K through 12 students to meet a "quota" in sales. To avoid sending their kids out to sell, many parents would rather write a check, but not all families can afford to do that.
As long as we continue to participate in the "bake sale" approach to school funding, and allow the legislature to renege on the responsibility to fully fund education, we will be contributing to the problem, not fixing it.
The celebration of Earth Day is a good time to examine the nationwide debate of the use of plastic or paper bags in supermarkets and other retail outlets.
The extent to which legislation protects public health can be seen in laws banning DDT, requiring helmets for motorcyclists, and seatbelts for drivers and passengers. Lawmakers have also found reason to mandate nutritional labeling on food products and child-proof caps for prescription and over-the-counter medicines.
We have standards for air quality, noise pollution, and clean water. What's the big deal with encouraging paper or fabric bags in place of plastic? We know plastic bags can be reused (when you walk your dog or line your wastebasket, for example) but we also know they constitute the majority of the waste found on beaches, the highways, and clogging our waterways.
The Santa Clara County, California Board of Supervisors has moved to adopt an ordinance banning "single-use carryout bags." The county commission is hammering out the details to include some exceptions and to further encourage retailers and consumers to get in the habit of using "reusable" bags.
The role of government has expanded to include protecting not just the people but the environment as well. Legislation will help, and perhaps in the future everyday will be Earth Day.
When the California State University (CSU) Stanislaus announced a fundraiser featuring former vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin red flags went up across the state.
The cost and other details about the speech, which is sponsored by the CSU Stanislaus Foundation, have not been disclosed, despite Public Records Act requests. According to the California Fair Political Practices Commission such foundations are exempt from the type of public scrutiny required of state institutions.
The fact that the university president chairs the foundation and its offices are on campus certainly leads one to believe it is part of the university, and that should be enough to prompt the foundation to divulge more details.
State Senator Leland Yee's proposal of legislation to provide more ovversight is overdue. The matter is being investigated by Attorney General Jerry Brown, but the legislature should not wait for the results of that effort. With slashes to state higher education budgets and increased tuition and fees, students and the public have a right to know how and where their money is being spent.
It is ironic that this is National Library Week. Since 1958 the American Library Association has set aside a week in April to celebrate libraries and all they offer to the public. In all liklihood they will be celebrated this week and put on the chopping block in the coming weeks.
Each year the American Library Association (ALA) chooses a theme. This year it is "Communities Thrive @ Your Library." Libraries are the new community centers, offering everything from espresso drinks, literacy training, children's storytimes, and special speakers and programs. Many have bookstores, and some newer libraries have reading rooms with comfortable chairs and fireplaces.
For the public, libraries are a necessity, not an amenity. Seniors can learn to surf the Internet and school children can get help with their homework. Patrons can forgo expensive magazine subscriptions and DVD charges by visiting the library.
Despite all that libraries offer, unlike police and fire departments, the employees don't have strong unions, hefty pensions, and the political connections to city hall.
As cities get down to the nitty gritty of budget cuts, libraries are on the "short list" of things to consider. Eliminating staff positions, reducing hours, and cutting programs all seem like easier decisions than holding the line on public safety wages or reducing other items in the budget.
I am celebrating National Library Week, as I always do. This year has special meaning. I celebrate in the hope that this attention will make legislators think twice before making those cuts.
Back in 1958 the ALA theme was "Wake Up and Read." I suggest to lawmakers they "Wake up and Lead" the campaign to sustain and enhance library services for every community.
In an op-ed this week in the New York Times, Thomas L. Friedman writes about the gridlock in Congress, and speculates that it will only get worse as partisanship and midterm elections influence the decision-making process.
His argument is supported with a quote by Larry Diamond of Stanford University. “If you don’t get governance right, it is very hard to get anything else right that government needs to deal with. We have to rethink in some basic ways how our political institutions work, because they are increasingly incapable of delivering effective solutions any longer.”
The problems are not limited to the halls of Congress. State and local legislators, facing huge budget deficits, are unwilling to make the bold legislative decisions to either raise taxes or cut expenditures. In many cities, it comes down to the power of the employee unions who are unwilling to concede any changes in either compensation or benefits.
We all stand to lose when no one has the courage to show leadership and make the difficult choices.
When I asked someone recently if he knew why next week is “Sunshine Week” he replied “ because we are turning the clocks forward?”
We may indeed have more sunshine in the coming months, but Sunshine Week is actually a national celebration of open government and freedom of information.
Sponsored by the American Society of Newspaper Editors (ASNE), the goal of the week is to bring together, in a nonpartisan manner, all who are concerned with public information. Participants include all types of media, as well as non-profit organizations, schools, libraries, and everyone who is concerned about the dissemination of public information.
The initiative is gaining momentum, and even features logo merchandise such as caps, mugs, and mousepads.
For those who believe in transparency in government, this is like the Olympics. It should be celebrated every day.
Educating the public on issues such as ballot measures, land use decisions, and the like can be a challenge. Many cities and special districts take advantage of posting information on their Web sites, but mailing newsletters to residents is also a strategy.
The California Fair Political Practices Commission (FPPC) will be considering whether or not to appeal two regulations adopted in December that would impact communications with constituents. The measures could determine that informational mailings would be a violation of an FPPC regulation prohibiting "improper political activities" on the part of government agencies.
The League of California Cities is among several associations asserting that the regulations may discourage public agencies from disseminating important information.
That lawmakers have ethics problems is not news. But it is interesting to note the apparent pattern in the disclosure and resolution of ethical lapses. In this podcast, members of the Ethics Center staff as well as visiting scholars discuss the recent headlines, and ponder what could be done to prevent public officials from crossing the ethical line.
In politics, power is often the exclusive domain of those who have access to the political system. But this is beginning to change, and a dynamic non-profit organization is leading the way. Matt Hammer, Executive Director of PACT (People Acting in Community Together) discusses the model as well as success stories, including the election to the San Jose city council of an early community organizer.
The new speaker of the California State Assembly, John Perez has a huge job ahead of him. Inheriting a state budget crisis, increasing partisanship in Sacramento, and the upcoming election of a new governor, are only a few of his challenges.
One seemingly small goal, but one that has the potential for a huge impact, is his intention to prohibit lobbyists from texting legislators during floor debates. The ban on texting, being considered by San Jose and other cities, could significantly impact the influence of lobbyists and bring more transparency to the debate and decision-making process.
The public has a right to know, he explained, “They need not worry that special-interest lobbyists are secretly sending messages of opposition or support to us as we deliberate.” There is no word yet as to how this will be enforced, but I’m happy to have seen the new political leader take this step.
The media swirl surrounding the private life of Tiger Woods escalated today when the golf icon held a press conference to address the circumstances of his car collision and his personal life.
The public interest in the private lives of individuals in politics, sports, and enertainment seems to have surged in recent years. What is the definition of a public figure? Is it our right to know everything about the private lives of public figures?
That depends. When the behavior is criminal, unethical, or illustrates a character flaw that would impair an elected official from performing effectively, that is something we should know about. But will the health, financial, or marital problems of a Super Bowl champion or an Oscar winner meet the threshold of the public's right to know?
Not everyone who excels in music, acting, or sports sets him or herself up to be a role model. That is a title often created by those who forget that we are all "mere mortals" and not super heroes.
Public servants, whether they are elected or appointed, are held to a higher standard because they set policy, spend public money, and represent their constituents. We expect them to be honest individuals with personal integrity. In this context, their conduct, public and private, is our business.
While most headlies on alleged public corruption seem to come from big cities such as Philadelphia and Newark, New Jersey, citizens in smaller communities are voicing their concerns about a lack of trust in their elected officials. In a Southern California community, transparency, integrity, and ethics are on the minds of voters who have mounted a recall effort against several incumbents.
The charges have all the elements of big-city scandals -- a no-bid extension of a garbage contract and the 10-year-old criminal record of an officeholder.
At the heart of the matter is the lack of public trust in the elected officials, and therefore, a lack of trust in their decisions.
Regardless of the outcome of the election, as long as the public holds their leaders accountable and individuals can engage in civil discourse, there may be a happy ending to this story.
As a political science and journalism student at the George Washington University in Wahington, D.C., I watched in disbelief when then-mayor Marion Barry was arrested on drug charges. He served his time, came back to public life, and is now implicated in another legal and ethical transgression.
His defenders admit he has made his share of mistakes and has shown poor judgement, but contend that, overall, Barry has been good for the city. But the notion that a policy maker can continue to abuse his office, break the law, and show no remorse is the wrong message for the electorate.