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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
As Hurricane Ike has once again proven, when disaster hits a community it can be impossible to evacuate some residents. Officials in Galveston were thwarted in their efforts to force people to leave in advance of the storm, and now are facing the same resistance in getting the “hold outs” to relocate.
What is the ethical obligation of the residents to leave their homes in the face of a hurricane, tornado, wildfire, or other disaster? What is the ethical obligation of the rescue workers to risk their safety to force evacuations? Who pays the cost for the “extraordinary” rescue due to individuals who refused to leave when asked?
I understand that no one wants to leave his or her home, not knowing if it will exist in the aftermath. It takes time to gather the family treasures, photo albums, pets, and the like. And there is always the hope that you will be the one in a million that bucks the odds and survives unscathed. But as we have seen so convincingly during these natural disasters, the toll in human lives is far greater when people refuse to evacuate.
It seems to me that the policy makers, government workers, and volunteers have an obligation of protecting the community, and the ethical action is the one that serves the common good and welfare of society. If an individual refuses to follow the advice, admonition, or sheriff’s order to evacuate, that individual should not expect precious resources to be used to be rescued “after the fact.”
These refusals amount to civil disobedience, and to the degree that these actions endanger rescue workers and obstruct efforts to cope with the disaster and its aftermath, perhaps the government should take a stronger stance—“tough love.” Maybe those who choose to stay behind should be prepared to reimburse the community for any extraordinary costs they generate through their failure to follow the rules.
“To change government ethics is a Herculean task,” according to New Jersey Assemblywoman Amy H. Handlin. Consider that insider knowledge. The Garden State continues to be in the headlines for misconduct, illegal activities, and government corruption from the municipal level to the governor’s office.
Handlin was one of several panelists dissecting the problem at a forum last night at Brookdale Community College. She was joined in the discussion by Professor Ingrid Reed of the Eagelton Institute of Politics New Jersey Project; Bob Ingle, Trenton bureau chief for Gannett New Jersey Newspapers; and Sandra Mattison, advocacy coordinator for the New Jersey League of Voters.
In the 90-minute discussion of the current state of ethics in government in the Garden State, they all agreed there was “tremendous room for improvement” but couldn’t come to consensus on a solution. Ingle, co-author of “The Soprano State: New Jersey’s Culture of Political Corruption,” argued the lack of public trust has led to lower voter turnout and an attitude that nothing will ever change if the same people continue to be elected.
There was a suggestion to engage each of the 500 or so municipal governments to build strong ethical frameworks, as the rules can change from jurisdiction to jurisdiction. (There is an effort to create a model ethics code for cities spearheaded by CityEthics.org.) Handlin’s efforts to require ethics training for state legislators have failed.
In the end it will take time to change the culture in New Jersey government. Not just time but discipline, persistence, tenacity, and moral courage. I hope they’ve had their Wheaties.
This summer my family had the opportunity to host a college student from Ukraine. Antonina came from a small village, moved to Kiev at 16 to begin college, and was in the U.S. working to make money for her final year at school. Her English was excellent, and as a sociology major with a keen interest in politics and history she quickly became a member of the family.
Although she worked two full-time jobs—at a theme park and a fast-food restaurant—earning minimum wage and no benefits, she never complained. Because there are few cars in her country and she never learned to drive, she was happy to ride a bike to the bus stop, take the bus to work, and ride to her next job –no complaints.
As we watched highlights of both the Democratic and Republican conventions with her, she had dozens of questions. The one that sticks in my mind came as one after another speaker criticized the opposing party, the health care system, public education, foreign policy, to name just a few. Many stirring speeches called for change, demanded reform and promised a new way of doing things. Expressing true wonder in her voice, she asked, “With a country so wealthy and with so many wonderful social programs, freedoms, and technology, why do people want to change things?”
Indeed, from her perspective, we live in paradise. The stores have an abundance of fresh food, she could eat meat every day, and she could afford to swim at the municipal pool. People here can speak freely about their political beliefs, are free to criticize the government, and have even their letters published in the local newspaper. Her observations were endless –she noted everything from the way garbage is picked up by trucks with “arms” to the delightful discovery that the public library had books in her language.
The dictionary defines the word complain as a way “to express feelings of pain, dissatisfaction, or resentment.”
I’m not suggesting we stop complaining about the U.S. but I do think that Antonina may put our country in context better than many of us do, recognizing its strengths as well as its failings.
At some point in the the hard-fought political campaign to the White House it is inevitable that some bragging, resume inflation, or exaggeration will occur. Sometimes it is the candidates who are under the press “microscope” from dawn to dawn, who slip up or tell a story not supported by the facts. Often, it is the professional campaign strategists, communications directors, and paid political staff that are behind the ads, blogs, and talk-radio campaigns.
In a stunning press release, the Public Relations Society of America (PRSA) has called upon the McCain and Obama campaigns to be more ethical. The organization represents over 30,000 professional and student members who are engaged in public relations work ranging from business and industry to hospitals, schools, the military, and nonprofit groups.
PRSA has challenged the two presidential candidates and their campaigns to sign a pledge obligating them to abide by the PRSA Code of Ethics in their campaign communications. In essence, they are being asked to: be honest and accurate in all communications; act promptly to correct erroneous communications; investigate the truthfulness and accuracy of information on behalf of those represented; and avoid deceptive practices.
The trade association issued the challenge because the ethics code “sets forth key principles that are essential to serving the public interest and contributing to informed decision making in a democratic society.”
Most states, including California, have a code of campaign ethics that candidates are either invited or required to sign. Unfortunately a signature on such a code has not prevented any determined candidate, supporter, or front group from lying, rumormongering, or participating in character assassination.
The voters are in charge here. Only when the public outcry over mudslinging and personal attacks is greater than the nasty campaigning will we see a change in the deceptive practices that have become commonplace in so many races.
The State of Alaska has reporting rules for public officials requiring them to list the source and amounts of income for themselves and family members. These statewide rules were strengthened last year, and now cities across the state are seeking exemption from the rules.
The latest city to protest is none other than – North Pole. Mayor Doug Isaacson says the local code of ethics “is less intrusive than the state’s rules but still effective.” In fact, he insists the city has been “double guarded” in ensuring public officials behave ethically.
The decision will be put to the voters October 7,and if the vote is successful North Pole will join roughly half of the cities and towns in Alaska that have opted out.
This should not be construed as Santa’s “Naughty or Nice” list. Public disclosures of sources of income are used across the country to allow the citizens to know more about their representatives and to guard against favoritism, conflicts of interest, and the like.
“ I do solemnly swear (or affirm) “ are the first words of the oath of office taken by public officials. The promise you take when accepting the public’s trust is that you will uphold the Constitution of the United States and the your own state, “according to the best of my ability, so help me God.”
Six years ago, Detroit Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick took that oath, and in 2007 he took an oath before the Grand Jury to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth when sworn in to provide testimony in a case involving the dismissal of police officers and an affair he was having with his then-chief of staff.
To the dishonor of his family, the people of Detroit, and mayors across the country he failed on all counts, lying about everything from his expense accounts to his extra-marital relationship.
As the Detroit Free Press described it “Had Kilpatrick’s ethical compass been more finely calibrated over the past six years, he most certainly would have enjoyed the limelight at the Democratic National Convention this summer along with such new-generation black mayors as Newark’s Cory Booker and Philadelphia’s Michael Nutter.”
To disgrace yourself and your family, resign from office, destroy your political future, face time in jail be given a $1 million fine is only part of the fallout from Kilpatrick’s actions. Elected to the city’s top office at just 31 years of age, he stood for hope and was to be a role model for young people. His story should serve as a cautionary tale to all who take the oath of public office.
Finding out how to get a building permit or where to complain about code enforcement might not be a problem for most city residents, but if you don’t speak or read English it is nearly impossible.
In New York City, where approximately 170 foreign languages are spoken, Mayor Michael Bloomberg recently signed the Language Access Executive Order to help. This new legislation provides oral and written language translation services, translation of important public documents by some 10 city agencies. Language interpretation is also available for Spanish, Chinese, Russian, Korean, and French Creole.
“All New Yorkers should have the same opportunities,” says Bloomberg, saying “the [order] will make the city more accessible, while helping us become the most inclusive municipal government in the nation.”
This isn’t the first effort by New York to reach out to non-English speaking communities. In 2003, the city’s 311 Customer Service Center began serving callers in 170 different languages. Other special efforts have been made in critical areas such as the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene and the Department of Homeless Services.
Not all cities have language barriers of this scale, but Bloomberg’s initiatives serve as a “best practice” that should be considered by others. And while working on the translations, perhaps someone could rewrite the materials in easy-to-understand sentences, eliminating what Webster’s Dictionary calls governmentese -- that confusing jargon used by government officials.
Is a campaign treasurer also a fundraiser? Is there a difference between a campaign strategist and a consultant? How do you define “an individual in a position of responsibility” in a political campaign?
These were among the questions facing the Rules and Open Government Committee of the San Jose City Council when they recently reviewed and discussed recommendations from the Ethics and Conduct Committee of the Sunshine Reform Task Force (SRTF).
The SRTF was created in 2006 to increase public access to information, enhance neighborhood participation, and ensure government accountability. Part of the overhaul includes a look at how campaigns are conducted and monitored, with special emphasis on the role lobbyists play.
The sticking points are in the descriptions of individuals with significant roles, and the proposal to prohibit registered lobbyists from “lobbying for compensation and for the purpose of influencing a legislative or administrative action, any elected official of the City of San Jose for whom the individual worked or volunteered for the entire time the elected official is in office.”
Seeking to encourage greater involvement by the community in campaigns, and also hoping to curb “insider influence,” the committee has sent the language back to the city attorney for further refinement. One suggestion is to enact a two-year ban; another suggestion was to try to quantify the work by keeping track of the hours volunteered.
Starting from a position of strength, it seems, would be best. A mid-course adjustment is always possible, but with committed leadership from the mayor and council, the language might not seem that restrictive after all.
The 2008 Olympics ended with spectacular fireworks and much hoopla, breaking records for both the athletes and those who planned and produced the many events.
The in-depth media coverage offered an insight into the talent, training, and dedication of men and women who pursue an athletic event with a singular goal: to be the best in the world at what they do and win a medal.
In reading and viewing many of the personal stories of the competitors I saw a common thread: passion and commitment.
We know that in order to be a legendary swimmer, gymnast, or weightlifter you first need to learn the techniques that will allow you to be successful. Once the basics have been mastered, Olympic athletes train – usually 12 months of the year – and learn to perfect their technique, increase their stamina, and overcome the disappointments associated with injuries.
These setbacks often serve to increase the desire to excel, to sharpen skills, and find as many chances as possible to practice.. Along the way, coaches, trainers, and family and friends offer support and advice, and teammates often form necessary scaffolding.
Watching the Olympic coverage has made me ponder what it would take to “go for the gold” in government ethics. It would require knowledge, training, and dedication. An “ethics Olympian” would show tremendous passion and commitment for public service, and would practice his or her “ethical decision making techniques” 12 months of the year. To be successful, this individual would also need coaching, and support from family and friends. In the best of all worlds, colleagues on the city council, state legislature, or Congress—their “teammates--would be there as part of the framework for success.
I doubt we will ever see government ethics elevated to an Olympic event, but that should not dissuade you from beginning your training today.
You can tell a lot about a city by the way it is presented on the official Web site. In my work I view hundreds of municipal Web pages per week. Sometimes I’m impressed, but more often confused, frustrated, and unable to find the materials I need.
So it was with great joy that I discovered the new Internet efforts of Grants Pass, Oregon. This small town, located on the Rogue River in southern Oregon, has created not only an inviting Internet presence, but has also posted some of the most informative and user-friendly materials I’ve seen.
From the opening page forward, you are drawn both into the history and lore of the community as well as the plans and promise for the future. The site is loaded with facts and figures. You’ll learn the basics such as the population (34,2370), but also have a chance to view videos including a welcome from the city manager, information about economic development, housing, and tourism. When they launched the site in 2007, the city solicited photographs from the public, and more than 700 were submitted, adding depth and quality to virtually every page.
One button is “I want to know…” that includes 21 choices ranging from how to pay a parking ticket to how to have a yard sale. Click on “Let us know” and you can take a citizen satisfaction survey, pass along a compliment to staff, or report code violations.
Two items stand out as excellent examples of how important a Web site can be in building community involvement. The first is a document from City Manager David Frasher outlining city council goals and describing progress and accomplishment of those goals. Included in the laudable efforts are the new, award-winning Web site, the televising of city council meetings, and working with local high school students “to teach our future community leaders about local government and give them lifelong tools for goal setting.”
The second, and perhaps best link, is to a page called “How Your City Government Works.” Beginning with the city council’s mission statement, this page gives the reader a clear idea of how proposals are brought to the city, what happens at meetings and workshops, and outlines the respective roles of the elected officials and city administrators.
Grants Pass has come a long way since the 1860s, when it served as a stagecoach stop. It serves as an outstanding example of using technology to inform and engage residents, businesses, visitors, and researchers and writers like me.
“More than any other time in history, mankind faces a crossroads. One path leads to despair and utter hopelessness. The other, to total extinction. Let us pray we have the wisdom to choose correctly.”
Woody Allen wasn’t talking about California’s budget crisis when he spoke these words, but they describe the current “state of the state.”
Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger has filed a suit to force the Controller John Chiang to cut employee wages in an attempt to force Democrats and Republicans to agree on the long-overdue budget. The governor moved ahead with the legal process in response to the Chiang’s refusal to reduce paychecks to reflect federal minimum wage while the state is without a spending plan.
Playing political games with hard-working employees who have no responsibility for the votes in the legislature sends the wrong message to the people of California. Rather than blustery brute force--punishing those who are struggling to feed their families and pay a mortgage--the members of the assembly and senate should be docked pay for each day they fail to agree on a budget.
The repercussions for this impasse should be borne by those who are responsible, the elected leaders of the state.