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, Jun. 18, 2010
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.
Thursday, Jun. 17, 2010
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.
Monday, Jun. 7, 2010
"Mistakes were made."
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.
Friday, Jun. 4, 2010
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.
Tuesday, May. 25, 2010
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.
Wednesday, May. 12, 2010
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.
Tuesday, Apr. 27, 2010
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.
Monday, Apr. 26, 2010
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.
Thursday, Apr. 22, 2010
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.
Tuesday, Apr. 20, 2010
On a recent cab ride in Los Angeles, the driver, picking up on a news story on the radio about cuts in the education budget for California exclaimed in frustration "California is broken!"
Few would disagree. The budget shortfall is staggering, and essential services such as education, health care, and infrastructure repair are all on the chopping block.
What can we do? The League of Women Voters has compiled a list of several organizations that are working toward reform. Some focus on redistricting, others on fiscal matters.
If you want to be part of the solution, check out the work these groups are doing and find a way to become involved. To turn around a familiar phrase, "If it's broken, then let's fix it."