Judy Nadler, senior fellow in government ethics at the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics, looks at ethical dilemmas, scandals, and best practices in government.
Tuesday, Nov. 22, 2011
This case is one of a series written to illustrate ethical dilemmas that occur in public service. Please share your comments or questions by posting to this site.
After working five years at the plan-checking counter at Robinsdale city hall, Gary Hess was looking forward to submitting his resume for the vacancy as assistant planning director. His interactions with the customers coming to have their building permits and architectural plans approved had been challenging in the beginning, but he felt he had “done his time” and had enough experience to warrant the promotion.
The city manager decided to hold an open recruitment for the position. Succession planning was one of her priorities. There were going to be several retirements in the Planning and Inspection Department, so she was looking for someone with management potential. To his great disappointment Gary was passed over, and the job went to Wendy Boone, a planning assistant from a neighboring city. When he asked the city manager why he was not chosen, she replied, “Your time will come. Right now I need strong leadership.”
While he was driving home that evening Gary was increasingly angry over the hiring decision. Not only would he be “stuck” working with the public at the counter, he had missed an opportunity for a more prestigious title and a substantial pay increase he had been counting on. Rather than stay mad, he decided to find a way to make the most of his situation.
The city had compiled a list of approved, licensed contractors that was available at the counter. This list did not imply a recommendation – it was meant to help residents, architects, and builders by listing those companies with a city as well as state license.
Gary began contacting companies on the list, suggesting that because he “admired their work” he would be willing to make a specific recommendation to people who came to the counter. Although he did not ask outright for anything in return, two of the companies promised a financial “bonus” for each contract that came through his recommendation. A third company offered use of a mountain cabin so that Gary and his family could take occasional weekends off to ski.
At first Gary was selective in making these “transactions,” but after six months his kickbacks seemed to be going undetected, and he became bolder. He bought a new car and began bragging about his “weekend at the chalet.”
In her six-month review of department operations—an audit of all activities—Wendy noticed the unusual number of contracts that were going to just three of the two dozen names of the list. When she questioned Gary, he denied any wrongdoing, and insisted that the three companies on the list were, in his opinion, superior. Further, there were no written rules prohibiting making personal recommendations.
Questions for discussion:
- Is it unethical for a city employee to make recommendations based on his or her experience?
- Would Gary’s actions have been acceptable if he had not engaged in a quid pro quo?
- What action should Wendy take with Gary? With other department employees?
- Is there anything the city manager might do to prohibit this type of behavior?
Wht do you think?
Monday, Nov. 14, 2011
What is your gift threshold? Would you accepta $12 meal? Would you turn down an offer to take a ride at an amusement park if you knew the value was $150? How about taking advantage of free parking offered by an athletic foundation worth $1,200?
The question of “gifts and freebies” accepted by some elected officials in South Carolina made news recently, and the fraction of legislators and councilmembers who took gifts was clearly outnumbered by the public servants who just said “no” to similar offers. According to The Sun News, of the 68 state legislators and sitting members of county council and city councils, 16 of them have reported taking gifts from businesses, constituents, and agencies. The total amount filed on economic disclosure forms is $46,507.
Reasons for turning down gifts varied:" I pay my own way so I don’t have to worry about conflicts or questions.” One legislator who accepted more than $11,000 in gifts said “the decision to accept a gift comes down to common sense,” and argues that refusing some gifts could send the message "you've been very indignant." And while he uses a “token gift” of a letter opener as an example, he has also accepted a golf and beach club membership worth $2,520.
Speaking at a Markkula Center Public Sector Roundtable recently, Michael Martello, former Mountain View, CA city attorney, predicted an even greater emphasis on the ethics of gifts, especially with the current focus of the influence of lobbyists.
As a previous officeholder and current senior fellow at an applied ethics center, I have repeatedly reminded public servants that accepting a gift gives the public the appearance that the gift is being given for one of two reasons-- in exchange for a favor done or in anticipation of a favor. Accepting freebies, even if they are only of “token” value, can damage credibility and public trust.
For more on ethics and gifts, visit the government ethics page of the Center’s Web site: http://www.scu.edu/ethics/practicing/focusareas/government_ethics/
Friday, Nov. 4, 2011
What happens when you bring corporate executives and public sector ethics experts together to talk about business, government, and the case for voter concern? You learn that the key to trust is relationships, and that while there are many differences between the public and private sectors, both must embrace and support a culture of ethics in their organizations.
I just returned from Southern Methodist University (SMU) where the Cox School of Business partnered with the Cary M. Maguire Center for Ethics and Public Responsibility to engage panelists from both sectors to exchange viewpoints on the topics of ethics, trust, and transparency. The underlying issue was “the case for voter concern.”
Matthew Harrington, CEO of the public relations firm Edelman, spoke of the lack of public trust in business and government. He cited his company’s “Edelman Trust Barometer” that shows trust has plummeted in virtually all sectors: business, government, media, and even non-profit organizations.
The recovery formula he suggests is a simple one—accountability plus transparency equals trust. The idea of building a “trust savings account” may help when a good organization experiences a crisis, he said, but “a deficit in trust is as dangerous as any economic problem.”
Some other key points from the speakers representing business:
• Trust is intangible, but it means delivering every day what you have promised to your customer.
• Transparency must be exercised in both word and deed.
• Disclosure is the act of giving the facts; transparency is explaining what it all means.
• Encourage employees and members of the board of directors to speak up – to be a “devil’s advocate” if necessary.
• You can make the great even better, but the mediocre cannot jump to greatness.
Next week I will write about the role of transparency and ethics in government, and the benefits of a strong culture of ethics in both the public and private sectors.
I welcome your comments.
Tuesday, Sep. 27, 2011
This fictional case illustrates some of the challenges facing newly appointed city managers. We welcome your comments and observations.
After serving 25 years as a quiet and low-key city manager of Longworth, Anthony McNerney decided it was time to retire. Under his stewardship the city had grown to 17,000, and he was especially proud that despite the inevitable changes that came over time, the city still retained a small-town feeling, an old-fashioned Main Street, and “the friendliest people in the state.”
During his tenure, the five-member city council had almost always been in agreement, and they endorsed virtually all of his recommendations. Few people attended the council meetings because they were, as one councilmember said, “short and sweet, and no political heat.”
In deciding how to replace McNerney the council called upon the state municipal league for recommendations. The council interviewed six candidates to serve as interim city manager, and chose Greg Holman. A recent graduate in public policy from a prestigious university, he had served as a deputy city manager for two years before moving to a larger city to become assistant city manager. He was now hoping to be selected to the top job in Longworth.
Holman not only had impressive credentials, but he was also well-connected with managers in other cities and had a reputation for involving the community in the decision-making process. He went out of his way to visit local businesses, held two “open office” receptions to meet the public, and scheduled one-on-one sessions for the top administrators. It was clear he had made a positive connection with the city council, so after just four months, he was unanimously appointed city manager.
His energy and enthusiasm was a boost to the community. The president of the Chamber of Commerce called him “a breath of fresh air,” and an editorial in the local newspaper predicted Holman would take the city “to the next level.” The editor highlighted the need to move “into this century” and to praised the council for choosing a city manager who would organize, streamline, and energize the city.
As he went about studying various city policies, Holman found a document marked “city manager’s suggestions, ” but he could not find a formal code of ethics. After checking with the city attorney he learned the council was under the general oversight of the state ethics commission, as were all the cities in the state. But it concerned him that there were no formal rules for the employees; they were to use “common sense” when making decisions.
His worry grew after reading files pertaining to gifts and free tickets received by the employees, unauthorized use of city equipment, and a host of other actions that would be considered ethics violations, putting the council and employees at risk. It became obvious that the pattern was to “look the other way,” a policy Holman was determined to change.
After outlining his concern about the lack of an ethics code and suggesting this be a priority project, several department leaders decided to retire rather than take on this initiative. “I’ve worked here 17 years,” said planning director Gail Shepherd, “and I just don’t have the energy to take on anything new.” Several others senior employees, including the city attorney also opted for retirement. “Call me old-fashioned,” the city auditor joked, “but I like things just the way they are.”
There was some apprehension when Holman brought in replacement staff, all equally enthusiastic about the goal of creating a values-based code of ethics for Longworth . The majority of city employees decided to wait before making a judgment, yet the council remained solidly behind Holman and excited about the ethics project.
A year into his “honeymoon” period Holman got the shock of his life – former city manager McNerney decided to run for an open seat on the council, with the intention of returning things in Longworth “back to normal.” McNerney bragged that everything done under his leadership was positive, and all the changes Holman had implemented he criticized as “ruining a perfectly good city.” His campaign slogan was “Don’t fix it if it isn’t broken.”
The city council and staff found themselves torn – they felt loyalty to and affection for McNerney, but optimism and confidence in the direction of Holman and his new team.
McNerney won in an uncontested election, and was determined to undo some administrative changes and take control of the council majority. Holman had to come up with a strategy that could bridge the old and the new, while keeping a positive work environment and satisfied citizens. He was determined to create an ethics code, but he also needed to find a way to keep his job.
How should Holman approach McNerney now that he is a member of the city council?
What should Holman do in light of the harsh criticism leveled against him during the campaign?Should he ignore it or try to address some of the disparaging accusations?
Would it be appropriate for Holman to ask the former city manager for clarification of the troubling policies or would this create more problems?
How can Holman smooth things over after the election, preventing McNerney from being an obstacle and bridging the gap between the two camps?
Would it be worthwhile to hire an outside consultant specializing in team building and goal setting?
Tuesday, Sep. 13, 2011
This is one of a series of fictional case studies based on real ethical dilemmas. It is designed to promote questions and commentary. We welcome your participation.
With unemployment at an all-time high and 50 percent of the downtown shops vacant, Tony Pell, mayor of Weldon, had been working with a regional business-development agency to revitalize what most locals called “the dead downtown.” So when a restaurant chain inquired about opening at the location of a closed steak house, the good news spread fast.
But as soon as identity of the restaurant was revealed, the celebration ended. “Why would be want to welcome ‘Cahoots’ to our town?” asked the president of the Chamber of Commerce. “I don’t want to say no to any new business, but a restaurant that looks and feels more like a Las Vegas casino is not what we want in our town.”
Brian Petrillo, regional vice president for the chain, came to the city council meeting when the item was first agendized to calm the critics and promote the project. ‘”The demographics for our restaurant are perfect for a town of 50,000,’ he explained. “Two Cahoots have opened recently in the region, and the synergy is really going to be to your advantage.”
Although few at the council meeting had actually visited the chain, many had seen television ads for the two new locations and were quick to criticize its “tawdry” bar and dining room. “Our interior décor reflects our philosophy – folks should have fun with their dining experience. We believe our theme draws customers but our food keeps them coming back,” explained Petrillo.
Michelle Kennedy, chair of the city planning commission, was one of many who came up to the podium to speak. “I was shocked when our family entered the restaurant while on a recent vacation. The young waitresses were in scanty costumes that made them look and act more like bar wenches than meal servers. The music was loud, and there was a large stage in the middle of the dining room, so we couldn’t avoid watching the ‘dancing.’ We couldn’t get out of there fast enough.”
Kirk McGuire, owner of several vacant properties downtown said a new restaurant would be a boon and would draw customers as well as other businesses. Several other business owners agreed. “That building that been vacant for five years—it’s past time to turn it into a chain like Cahoots. Besides, if we say no they’ll take their restaurant to a business-friendly town down the road.”
“We need to make sure that all parties get the facts and make sure the city council makes its decision based on good land-use planning rather than relying on emotion and hearsay,” cautioned the mayor. “ So I am recommending a subcommittee of downtown property owners and retailers who will meet with the city manager, city planner, and police chief. The applicant will prepare a presentation and the subcommittee will issue a report at a joint meeting of the planning commission and city council. We’ll make sure there will be plenty of time for the public to speak.”
“We all have our own personal preferences,” explained the city manager, “but we cannot let those individual opinions jeopardize the revitalization of our downtown.”
Discussion questions. Please post your responses in the comment section.
• If Cahoots meets all the zoning, parking, and other land-use planning requirements, is it fair for the city council to deny their application?
• What weight should council members give the moral values/objections of some in the community versus the support of others?
• Since the chair of the planning commission shared her opinion on the restaurant before an application was filed, should she recuse herself from further discussion and abstain when the vote is taken?
• If the restaurant is approved, what could be done to repair the rift in the community?
• Do you believe this controversy is likely to have an impact on other companies seeking to relocate to downtown? Why or why not?
Friday, Sep. 9, 2011
When off-duty firefighters in North Bend, Oregon cut down 25 alder trees in February, Fire Chief Scott Graham said he thought the firefighters could take the wood, and he could help himself to some as well.
But the Oregon Government Ethics Commission has reprimanded Graham, saying he should have known he could not take them for personal use.
“Every public official in the state of Oregon is required to adhere to ethics laws,” according to Ron Bersin, executive director of the commission. “One of those laws is that you are not able to financially gain from your position. He was using fire department equipment and city trees and he was going to burn the wood at his home.”
A retired Coos Bay firefighter blew the whistle when he saw the city firewood stacked against the chief’s house. “He had so much wood you couldn’t see the roof of his house.”
The sanction, rather than a fine, was recommended because he had not yet burned the wood. A part of the stipulation is that the wood be donated to an agency serving individuals with mental illnesses.
Chief Graham said the whole episode “basically boiled down to miscommunication.”
Please post your thoughts in our comment section.
• Does it matter that the firefighters were off duty when they did the work?
• There was no mention in the news story on whether or not the firefighters took any wood. If they did, how should their case be treated?
• How should the chief handle this within the fire department?
• What role, if any, should the mayor or city manager play in addressing ethics laws?
• What do you think the best outcome could be in this situation?
Friday, Aug. 26, 2011
How did you survive the budget hearings in your jurisdiction?
With the uncertainty at the federal level, states are bracing for a decrease in what they receive, and cities and counties are keeping a close eye on what is sure to be a cut in money from the states.
Let us know how you approached the budget decision process by taking this simple, anonymous survey.
Although there are only six short questions, your answers could make a difference to public servants across the nation.
Go to http://www.surveymonkey.com/s/VS62KTT and we’ll post a summary of your responses.
Thursday, Aug. 11, 2011
In what appears to be a growing problem, another city council has silenced a critic, using an excuse that only city residents may address the council.
Kevin Hamm, a former city computer specialist for Port Ritchey, Florida, was suppressed by the mayor as he got up to speak at this week’s meeting. Mayor Richard Rober said he would be “strictly adhering to the charter that says anyone addressing the city council must be a city resident or a party to an issue on the agenda.”
While it’s true that Hamm lives outside the city limits, he has been a regular attendee at the weekly meetings, often criticizing the Port Ritchey leaders for issues ranging from his public record requests toquestions about the city July 4 fireworks show.
Most recently Hamm filed an ethics complaint with the state over how the fireworks were funded, upsetting some in the community who enjoyed the holiday show.
The mayor insists he did not enact the little-known part of the charter in order to punish the frequent critic. “No,” he said, “this is going to affect a lot of people, including Mr. Hamm, who are used to talking to us.”
“It’s amazing,” says Hamm. “For as long as I can remember, citizens have been able to speak to the council about their concerns – until you say something they don’t like.”
Share your reactions in our comment section. Do you believe the city charter violates free speech? Is there another way for the council to handle individuals who speak frequently, or who are critical of their elected officials?
Tuesday, Aug. 9, 2011
Given the negative tone of recent stories about government, it is refreshing to read of an effort to celebrate the good things happening in our cities.
The League of California Cities and the California Management Foundation have launched a new program called “Strong Cities/Strong State.” The website will be used to highlight positive stories in cities across the state, focusing on quality of life issues as well as interviews of city leaders. The program also includes a Facebook page.
According to the League, this program “provides a first-of-its-kind platform for showcasing California cities’ success stories, pairing these achievements with testimonials from community leaders and emphasizing specific city services and community characteristics.”
The goal of the program is to profile every city in the state over the next 18 months.
Monday, Aug. 8, 2011
Phil Lakin gives back to the city of Tulsa every day, serving as the head of the Tulsa Community Foundation. Now he wants to serve the community in an additional capacity: as an elected member of the city council, and some say this will create a conflict requiring frequent recusals.
The philanthropic foundation, according to Tulsa World, is worth $4 billion and is the largest of its kind in the nation. The city has been a beneficiary, receiving money for projects ranging from the travel budget for employees in the mayor’s office to buying a $25 million revenue bond to front the cost of a civic project. (The money will be repaid over a 30-year-period.)
The chair of the Ethics Advisory Committee believes Lakin will have to recuse himself from many votes. “Any official,” said Michael Slankard, “whether elected or appointed, has to be very careful about how their day job interacts with their public duties and the perception that will have on the public.”
Although Lakin could not speculate what might constitute a conflict of interest with his job, he has stated “I can guarantee you that if there are any conflicts of interest, I am going to recuse myself, but to sit here today and try to figure out what those are would be really difficult.”
However, the candidate has hinted that his professional affiliation could benefit Tulsa. “If I am elected and see holes in funding that could really advance our city, then yes, I would come back to the community foundation and let our donors know about them. I can't guarantee a dollar will come, but if we can make investments because of the knowledge I receive, then I think that's a benefit."
Please share your comments on the following questions:
• How will the officeholder know what constitutes “crossing the line” prompting a recusal?
• Should Lakin take a “wish list” back to the Foundation?
• Do you think there should be a process whereby citizens can petition the councilmember for recusal?