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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.

  •  Many Wrongs Do Not Make A Right

    Thursday, Feb. 18, 2010

    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.

     

  •  Equal Access to Education

    Wednesday, Feb. 17, 2010
    The federal government has an overwhelming debt, states are on the bring of bankruptcy, and local government and school districts are scrambling to maintain services to the community. What can we do about a “broken” system, especially when our funding decisions today will impact our entire society in the future?
     
    Paula Mitchell, principal of Terra Bella Academy in Mountain View, California spoke about these challenges, especially as they relate to at-risk students. Her comments are captured in this video.

     

  •  Ethics Exhaustion

    Tuesday, Nov. 11, 2008

    Campaigning is exhausting, even if you are not a candidate or involved in the election. The barrage of television and radio ads, dozens of campaign flyers, and endless robo-calls supporting or opposing a candidate or measure can really take a toll on a person. And in California, there are so many propositions you need a wheelbarrow to get the voter’s guide from the mailbox to the kitchen table.

    But one of the most exhausting aspects of the campaign season is trying to discern truth from fiction, fact from fantasy. Studying the materials, reading the newspaper, talking with friends, attending candidate’s forums—it’s almost a full-time job. The results of any election are too important to leave to chance, so evaluating the way candidates conduct themselves and their campaigns requires effort. The ethics shown during the campaign are likely to reflect the way the candidate behaves in office.

    So although it is exhausting, I believe it is well worth the effort. My only suggestion is to get plenty of rest, because the next election will be here before you know it.
     

  •  Corporate Citizenship or Quid Pro Quo?

    Wednesday, Oct. 29, 2008

    It is no surprise that non-profit groups benefit greatly from the generosity of local businesses and corporations. What may be a surprise is what drives the donations.

    According to a recent story in The New York Times, defense contractors Northrup Grumman and General Dynamics each gave $100,000 to support the symphony orchestra of Johnstown, Pennsylvania, population 21,832. Other benefactors include Boeing and Lockheed Martin at $50,000 each. Why so much money for such a small community? New reporting records are requiring lobbyists and corporations to disclose the money they give to favorite causes of legislators, and the local symphony is a favorite charity of Representative John Murtha, whose Congressional committee handles lucrative defense contracts.  The congressman’s wife (the opera buff in the family) has been an honorary chair of the gala for years.

    Several congressmen have established scholarship funds in their own name, including the James E. Clyburn Research and Scholarship Fund, a beneficiary of the Nuclear Energy Institute. Just two months before a $10,000 donation was made, Congressman Clyburn assured nuclear energy marketers he would work on their behalf before his colleagues.

    Uncovering this practice is unlikely to change the donation patterns, as most companies see this practice as being a “good corporate citizen.” During the first six months of 2008 that largess added up to some $13 million donated to charity and in honor of more than 200 members of the house and senate.

    While the new regulations add transparency to the process of money flowing to members of the federal government, it does not address the appearance of quid pro quo, favoritism, or other unethical practices.

     

  •  It Shouldn't Take A Law

    Monday, Oct. 20, 2008


    When Atlanta City Councilman Caesar Mitchell paid his brother’s consulting firm $49,223 there was no provision in the city’s ethics code to prohibit council members from engaging in contracting with family members or siblings, even if those individuals had a “financial or personal interest.”

    Pendulum Consulting, which is co-owned by Mitchell’s former campaign manager, received the money in 2006 and 2007 for “a variety of goods and services.” Following a probe by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution the city ethics code was amended to prohibit council members from engaging in such transactions. The most current payments appear to be in violation of the code, and Mitchell is seeking counsel from the Ethics Board to see if he had followed the law.

    Mitchell is both council member and candidate for mayor. It should not take a law for a public servant to understand that using taxpayer’s dollars to benefit a family member is wrong. The case is an excellent example of the need for a combined rules and values-based code, because there will never be enough laws to cover every single situation facing officeholders.

    In this case, it shouldn’t take a law to see that nepotism is not a good way to run a city, and that both common sense and a respect for public trust should be the deciding factor in situations like this, not relying on a “formal ruling” after the fact. 
     

  •  Local Government Reflects The Real World

    Wednesday, Oct. 15, 2008



    If you have never attended a city council meeting, I encourage you to do so. On any given day or evening you will see a group of public servants making decisions on everything from multi-million dollar construction projects to whether or not to install a stop sign in a local neighborhood. Concerned citizens, “council watchers,” and occasionally a Boy Scout Troop looking to earn a badge can be found in the audience.

    As a councilmember and mayor I saw my share of routine, challenging, and incredibly complex and controversial issues come before the council, and reading a news item about the city council meeting in Lake Havasu City, Arizona reminded me of the thoughtfulness and care that must go into these important decisions.

    At a recent meeting the council voted to approve the annexation of a car dealership. According to the Desert Hills fire chief, loss of tax revenues from the dealership could impact the Desert Hills Fire Department, which provides some service to assist Lake Havasu City.

    Land-use planning issues carry with them tremendous impacts on city services, including fire, police, and schools plus many services people don’t normally think about, such as storm sewers and street maintenance. Each vote should take into account all the ramifications, what would be best for the community at large, and how each decision helps or hinders creating an ethical organization. The Markkula Center’s Framework for Thinking Ethically is a practical guide, helpful in working through the decision-making process.

    Given the discussion of the annexation, it was good to see that the other big item on the agenda was a proposal to consider establishing a Code of Ethics or conduct for the council. With new members coming into office in November, Vice-Mayor Dennis Schilling felt this was the right time to take this action, especially in light of public complaints about governance.


    Some great examples for Lake Havasu City and other municipalities looking into adopting a code of ethics can be found by visiting the Web site of the Institute For Local Government.

    I couldn’t help but feel encouraged that the city recognized its ethical responsibility to the community and is taking the first steps toward addressing a more formal program.
     

  •  Vote Ethics

    Wednesday, Oct. 8, 2008


    Among the political mailers arriving in mailboxes this month is one that doesn’t tell you which candidate or proposition to support or oppose. This newspaper, titled Campaign 2008, is sent to all residents in Santa Clara, California, to support the “Vote Ethics” program.

    For three consecutive election seasons the city has provided information to voters to encourage them to hold candidates accountable and help demystify the various claims made during campaigns.

    Santa Clara began its Ethics and Values program 10 years ago, collaborating with the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics to establish a Code of Ethics and Values developed by the community. I was mayor at the time, and although we had a Code of Ethics, this initiative was groundbreaking because it combined ethics and values.

    Working with consultant Dr. Tom Shanks, the program grew to include public education outreach on the electoral process. The nonpartisan and nonpolitical program does not tell voters how to vote, but “provides voters with tools to make a candidate’s ethics and values an important part of the voting decision. It encourages voters to look to the candidate’s campaign for evidence of trustworthy leadership, a commitment to the City’s Code of Ethics and Values, and the capacity to lead the City’s Ethics and Values Program.”

    An ethics “checklist” encourages voters to consider 11 ethical characteristics of candidates, including treating opponents with dignity and respect, and taking responsibility for any mistakes they make or mistakes made by volunteers or consultants.

    The city also sponsors a candidates forum in October, and the night before the election holds another forum, “The Final Word,” designed to discourage last-minute “hit pieces.”  Candidates are allowed to present their messages and refute any charges they feel are unfair.

    Other communities, including the City of Livermore, California, have replicated this award-winning document.   It serves as an excellent model and confirms, “Good government begins at the ballot box.”
     

  •  When In Doubt, Just Bow Out

    Wednesday, Oct. 1, 2008


    Lee County, Florida has voted to create an ethics policy in the wake of a scandal involving County Manager Don Stilwell.

    After an independent investigator said “Stillwell never lied to the board about his involvement in a land deal with his son-in-law,” four of the five county commissioners decided to keep him on the job.

    Conflicts of interest are one of the most dangerous of the ethical violations facing city and county managers, so while the outside investigator has cleared him, the top administrator still may face scrutiny from the Florida Commission on Ethics or the Florida City and County Manager’s Association.

    Stillwell and his staff will draft new ethics language that will attempt to clarify policies about how county employees do business in the county.

    Board chair Ray Judah summed it up best, saying that while he was not suggesting Stillwell was unethical by investing in property where he is the top government official, he created the perception his actions were unethical.

    The board hopes the “better, stronger ethics code” might prevent similar problems in the future. That may be true, but I tend to agree with Commissioner Brian Bigelow when he said “I think it is a very sad and pathetic day if we have to amend a county manager’s contract to include a requirement that he be ethical.”

    More simply put, when in doubt about a conflict of interest it is prudent to bow out.
     

  •  Ethics As A Work Of Art

    Monday, Sep. 29, 2008


    The United States Office of Ethics is a small agency with a big job. Established in 1978, it became a separate agency in 1989 when Congress passed government ethics reauthorization legislation.

    According to their Web site, the agency ”exercises leadership in the executive branch to prevent conflicts of interest on the part of government employees, and to resolve those conflicts that do occur.”

    The Office of Ethics works with other branches and departments of the federal government to assist in monitoring conduct and commends those agencies that have “demonstrated a strong commitment to ethics education and communication; created a stronger ethical culture as result of these efforts; and utilized model practices to encourage understanding and awareness of ethical behavior.”

    In announcing the 2008 Education and Communication Awards Winner Circle earlier this month, director Robert I. Cusick lauded the award-winning agencies for producing “education and communication products that were innovative, creative, transferable, and successful,” saying “their products serve as models that can be adapted for use by other agencies.”

    One agency taking home an award was the Department of Interior, which was recently in the news for an ethics scandal, not ethics excellence. According to news reports, employees in the Mineral Management Service were engaging in financial self-dealing, sexual misconduct, cocaine use, and accepting gifts from energy companies. The charges show many examples of conflicts of interest and illegal as well as unethical behavior.

    Ironically, the ethics award given to the Interior Department was for “developing a dynamic laminated Ethics guide for employees.” In the press release announcing the award recipients, Cusick described the manual as a  “polished, professional guide with colorful pictures and prints which demand employees’ attention. It also features tabs on a variety of ethics topics, and is small enough for employees to carry.”

    Clearly it takes more than colorful illustrations, polished copy, and a pocket-sized guide to ensure ethical behavior. The Inspector General, Earl E. Devaney, in his cover memo to Congress on the scandal cited a “culture of ethical failure” throughout the agency. No graphic designer’s work of art can overcome pervasive bad behavior. Not even an award-winning work of art.


     

  •  A Billion Here And A Billion There...

    Monday, Sep. 22, 2008


    I saw a bumper sticker on a luxury car the other day that proclaimed, “I’m spending my kid’s inheritance.”

    That’s how it’s beginning to feel in California, where the legislature has not been able to come to a fundamental agreement that will allow them to pass a long-overdue budget. The governor is expected to veto the new budget tomorrow morning, and along with the veto will be a simple message: we can’t keep fixing our failed system with bailing wire and duct tape.
     
    Even the legislature doesn’t believe this is a good budget, but it is what Assembly Speaker Karen Bass calls “a short-term solution.” Democratic Senate Leader Don Perata was more to the point: “Let’s be clear. All we’ve done is roll the problem over to the next Legislature.”

    With accounting and budgeting logic like this, it is no wonder public confidence is low and the business community wary. To his credit, Schwarzenegger has brought up the forbidden word – taxes—as a way to temporarily ease the crisis. That plan is flawed, however, as it would be followed three years later by a tax cut. As Everett Dirkson was famous for saying  "A billion here and a billion there, and pretty soon you're talking real money."

    California should look closely at the financial collapse on Wall Street to see where this kind of “creative” financing can lead.

    Scholar Karen Rowlingson wrote about this phenomenon in 2006, and referred to a group called SKIers – (people) spending their kid’s inheritance. She probably could not have imagined the federal government bailout of the venerable financial institutions, and I can almost guarantee she wasn’t thinking about California.

    As for me, I would prefer those who ski do it on the slopes, not on the backs of the taxpayers or on the futures of the next generation.
     

 
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