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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.

  •  Potential Lawsuit Designed To Silence Critic

    Wednesday, Aug. 3, 2011

    In an interesting follow up to the case study posted earlier, the Los Alamitos, California city council is considering filing a lawsuit against a council critic.

    In a 3-2 vote, the council voted to research how to handle a potential ethics complaint against Brad Sheridan, who ran unsuccessfully for city council a year ago. Sheridan, an attorney, has been accused of making “inflammatory comments” about other candidates and individuals involved in city government.

    The vote directs staff to look into filing a complaint with the California Bar Association, but city manager Jeff Stewart said, “While Mr. Sheridan’s comments might be considered inflammatory and included references to the possibility of a criminal inquiry by the District Attorney, the statements did not include threats that met the threshold of being reportable to the State Bar Association. Accordingly no further action was taken on the matter.”

    Those who voted against the investigation said it was a waste of time and money, and said the action looked like “a personal vendetta” and reflected poorly on the mayor and council, but the others favored moving ahead.

    Debate centers around a lawsuit filed against the city’s trash haulers during the campaign, an action that pitted candidates against one another in an attempt to change the council majority.

    What would you do if you were on the council?

  •  Handling Council Critics: Is The Customer Always Right?

    Friday, Jul. 29, 2011

    As a part of an on-going series of case studies in government ethics, summer intern Jason Wu wrote the following scenario about civility at council meetings. Discussion questions follow; we encourage your comments.

    As a four-term mayor of the city of Brookstone, Paul Mackey had done his best to manage the city’s budget over the years. Despite his efforts, he still found himself in the midst of an economic crisis. Many neighboring cities were undergoing drastic cutbacks to their programs, and Brookstone was no exception.

    Having proposed several unpopular options that would slash funding to city services, Mackey fielded phone calls every day from angry citizens who demanded a plan that would keep their favorite programs intact. The pressure was mounting upon Mackey to deliver something that would satisfy the public and be supported by the council. His patience was wearing thin.

    A few days prior to the next council meeting, Mackey had a long conversation with Joan Anderson, a vocal critic of his budget plans. That afternoon, Ms. Anderson filed a complaint with the police department saying that she had felt personally threatened by the mayor. “I asked Mr. Mackey how he could in good conscience consider cutting funding to our bookmobile, and he just snapped,” Anderson said.

    The complaint appeared in the local newspaper and led to an interview with the mayor. Mackey denied the allegation, and maintained that he had never shouted at a constituent “in all my years of service as a public official.”

    Because there was no evidence to back up either of their statements, the case was closed.

    However, Anderson remained determined to make her voice heard. She sent an email to the mayor that outlined her own budget plan, and she also invited him to meet for coffee and settle their differences. Mackey responded by writing, “Your comments are like those of a gadfly-you are never happy and you never have a solution but you always have lots of complaints.”

    Outraged by his reply and armed with copies of the email, Anderson filed a complaint with the city clerk and city manager claiming that Mackey had violated Brookstone’s Code of Ethics. Since Brookstone did not have an independent ethics commission to investigate potential violations, it was up to the council members to take action. The city clerk and city manager forwarded the copies of the email to the council members, and Anderson’s complaint was agendized for an upcoming city council meeting.

    At the meeting, Anderson pointed out that Brookstone’s Code of Ethics made it clear that officials had to act at all times with “respect, courtesy, and concern.” She added that the code also said that “officials who violate the Code of Ethics will be subject to disciplinary action, up to and including removal from office.”

    Emily Lam, the vice-mayor of Brookstone, proposed that the council submit the issue to the ethics subcommittee, which would review the incident. The other council members and the mayor agreed that this was the best course of action.

    Two weeks later, the ethics subcommittee delivered their report at a city council meeting. They recommended that the council issue a formal reprimand, which would amount to a slap on the wrist for Mackey. The mayor recused himself from the vote, and the other council members voted 4-0 in favor of the motion for a reprimand and tried to move on.

    However, Mackey was furious with the resolution. “We’re facing the biggest financial crisis in Brookstone’s history, and instead of dealing with it we’re just wasting our time on these petty complaints,” he said. Embarrassed by his outburst, the other council members were anxious to resolve the infighting and get back to the business of managing the budget shortfall.

    Discussion Questions:

    • How should the mayor and the council handle citizen complaints such as the one made by Ms. Anderson?
    • Is Mackey’s email really a violation of the Code of Ethics or is it simply part of the “rough and tumble” world of politics?
    • Is there a difference between a Code of Ethics and a Code of Conduct or Council Protocol?
    • What can the mayor and council do to restore civility in the conduct of council meetings and repair their relationships with each other?
    • What role, if any, does the city manager play in “keeping the peace”?
  •  What Side Of The Aisle Do You Sit On?

    Thursday, Jul. 28, 2011

    The debate over the debt ceiling has convinced me that we should mix things up in the House and Senate chambers, and eliminate the aisles.

    In the same way my elementary school teachers would move students around the room periodically, we should require the Democrats and Republicans to change their seats, mixing members of the two parties, and eliminating the “divide” that the current layout fosters. In U.S. politics “across the aisle” refers to ideological differences between the parties, but also refers where the members sit-to the left or right of an aisle in the chamber.

    The ability to “reach across the aisle” seems to have diminished to the degree that members of one party are encouraged not to fraternize with the members of the other party. This polarization can only serve to encourage and ensure a stalemate on the debt ceiling vote and other important issues.

    What do you think?  Short of trading seats, is there any way to encourage interaction and cooperation between the two political parties?

  •  The Slippery Slope In Politics

    Wednesday, Jul. 27, 2011

    I spoke with a reporter recently who was writing about gifts elected officials were taking but not disclosing. More troubling, many of the officeholders said they “couldn’t remember” whether or not they had gone to the Super Bowl courtesy of a major business interest. How could this be?

    It’s difficult to explain the “selective memory” excuse, since tickets to major sporting events, Broadway shows, and golf excursions at exclusive country clubs are not only memorable, but out of the reach of most of the public. However, there is is a theory about how officeholders get themselves into trouble: they step onto the “slippery slope.”

    The simplest definition in the dictionary for this phenomenon is “dangerous situation.” In politics, the slippery slope generally refers to an ethical decision that starts with no consequences, but subsequent decisions make it more difficult to discern right from wrong. Without knowing it, the individual has “crossed the line” and done something unethical. The slope is especially slippery when gifts or special privileges are involved.

    A common excuse for unethical behavior is “everyone else is doing it.” Another way to explain this behavior is to claim, “it’s not that bad.” This always leaves me wondering what would be bad? My personal favorite is the officeholder who is insulted by an ethics complaint, protesting, “I cannot be bought off by…(a round of golf, playoff tickets--you fill in the blank).

    Not all the blame rests with the public officials. After all, they are just accepting a gift or benefit that has been offered by a lobbyist, special interest group, or grateful citizen.

    It may not be easy to resist to these temptations, but nobody ever said being in public life would be easy.

  •  Political Junket Or Just Part Of The Job?

    Tuesday, Jul. 26, 2011

    Politicians who travel to exotic places “on business” are apt to draw negative attention, but in New York, the travel drew a $20,000 fine.

    Brooklyn borough president Marty Markowitz took several overseas trips for official city business, but because he brought his wife the Conflicts of Interest Board found him guilty of an ethical violation. The fact that wife Jamie accompanied him was deemed to be “accepting travel expenses for his wife for each trip, using his position as a public servant for private or personal advantage. Simply put, his wife was able to travel with him abroad –for free.”

    The trips in question were to Turkey (twice) and to the Netherlands. Markowitz argues neither he nor his wife received any personal benefit from the trips, saying, “when they bring you over it’s not vacation –they make you work.”

    In making its decision, the board noted Mrs. Markowitz is not an official staff member, quoting a New York City Charter provision that states “no public servant shall use or attempt to use his or her position as a public servant to obtain any financial gain, contract, license, privilege or other private or personal advantage, direct or indirect, for the public servant or any person or firm associated with the public servant.”

    Although he will pay the fine, Markowitz maintains he did nothing wrong, and called the ruling a “terrible decision.”

    Reading the comments posted to the New York Times article show opposing reactions to this story. Several readers felt Markowitz was a hard-working public servant, and expressed support for “the option of bringing a spouse on international travel, particularly if it’s for more than a few days.”

    The majority of the reactions were negative: “another politician who thinks that ethics laws apply to everybody but him.” A common thread was expressed by one reader who wrote “Is he serving his constituents in any way by taking these contrived missions of good will, which in essence are nothing more than ‘vacations?’ These kind of junkets are what sour people on politicians.”

    What do you think? Is travel a perk or part of the job? Should a spouse or companion be allowed a “free ride” or be made to pay for the trip and accompanying expenses? Let me know by posting a comment here.

  •  The Trouble With Term Limits

    Monday, Jul. 25, 2011

    Term limits are a perennial topic in California, with strong voices for and against limiting the time an elected official may hold office. But the latest study by the Center for Governmental Studies (CGS) says “term limits force California legislators to take their expertise to other government offices, not keep it in the state legislature.”

    The report, “Citizen Legislators or Political Musical Chairs? Term Limits in California,” says the 1990 move to limit legislators to a specified term was intended to create “citizen legislators” who would go back to the private sector upon completing their service. What has happened, according to CGS research, is that most state legislators go on to other kinds of elective office, creating “an ongoing cycle of ‘political musical chairs’ in which many California legislators seek other government positions, even before they are termed out.”

    A statewide measure, expected to be on the June 2012 ballot, would seek to revise the current limits by reducing the total time from 14 to 12 years, but allowing all 12 years be served in the same office.

    According to Bob Stern, president of the non-profit CGS, the proposed revisions would give legislators more experience in office and “increase the institutional memory of the legislature.”

    The report looks at term limits from an historical perspective, and also includes findings on age, race, gender, experience, and educational diversity among California legislators.

    Share your thoughts here – should term limits remain in place or did the intentions of the proponents cause more harm than good?

  •  Attempt To Cut Ethics Budget Sends Wrong Message

    Friday, Jul. 22, 2011

    He insists it wasn’t an act of retaliation, but the congressman who proposed a 40% cut in the budget of the Office of Congressional Ethics (OCE) was a target of an ethics investigation last year.

    Rep. Melvin Watt of North Carolina said he supported the amendment because “the work by the ethics office is at times abusive, causing unnecessary embarrassment of House members.” Rep. Steve King of Iowa went even further with his criticism, accusing the ethics office of violating “Roman law, English common law, and the decency of the House.”

    The vote was 102-302, and members were forced to go on the record rather than voting by voice. Acknowledging there may be some problems with the OCE, one congressman said the cuts were not the answer. Rep. Michael E. Capuano of Massachusetts called the cuts “draconian punishment” that look like an attempt to say “We’re the boss; you’re not.”

    The ethics office can investigate but not punish House members, and has looked into charges levied against both parties. While Mr. Watt’s case was referred to the committee, no charges were ever filed against him.

    Legislation seeking to silence ethical checks and balances only serves to add to the perception that all politicians are crooks. Whether it is the OCE or a local ethics commission doing the work, it’s good to remember the words of Sophocles: “Don’t kill the messenger.”

  •  Taiwan Launches Anti-Corruption Effort

    Tuesday, Jul. 19, 2011

    Long known for corrupt government, Taiwan is taking significant steps to end such activities by establishing its first anti-corruption government agency.

    The Agency Against Corruption (AAC) will be under the Ministry of Justice (MOJ) and led by a previous MOJ counselor. “The agency’s aim is to fight corruption, raise the conviction rate of corruption cases, and protect human rights.”

    Ethics officers and investigators will make up the 180-person agency, including employees who handled a major scandal in 2008. In that case, the ex-minister of Interior was given a two-prison term but was instead suspended for five years.

    The agency will rely on tips from local government organizations, and will work closely with law enforcement in their investigations. From there, the cases will be turned over to prosecutors.

  •  Who Should Pay For Fire Protection?

    Friday, Jul. 15, 2011

    Summer wildfires in California are an annual event. Ranging from small hillside fires to roaring infernos covering thousands of acres, a good chunk of the budget goes to fight those fires. Now, the bill will go property owners.

    By signing Assembly Bill 29, Governor Jerry Brown established a “fire protection and prevention fee” intended to cover wildland areas now paid for by the Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (CAL FIRE). The $150 fee for each structure within state responsibility areas is expected to save $50 million for CAL FIRE and $200 million in ongoing general fund savings.

    The governor, while praising the bill, admits the legislation needs additional work to address legal and other issues.

    Deciding to build a home on a steep hillside, in a secluded forest area, or near the ocean side, all present significant difficulties for fire and rescue personnel –above and beyond what is encountered in urban areas.

    Who should pay for mitigating expensive disasters? The debate continues: some argue that if you make the decision to live in a remote or disaster-prone area you should pay the costs. The property owners impacted by this fee argue that their tax dollars cover the expenses, and they should not be singled and asked to pay more.

    What do you think?

  •  Mixing Politics and Policy In Campaigns

    Wednesday, Jul. 13, 2011

    As campaign season heats up, the number of ethical dilemmas for candidates, staff, and volunteers also increases. Here is one based on an interview I had recently with a reporter. It points out the challenges of being both a candidate and an officeholder.

    Texas Representative Michael McCaul’s chief of staff Greg Hill has also been working for his boss on the campaign. He has not taken a leave of absence during the campaign, leading to the question: How can you be working for the officeholder and paid by the public while you are simultaneously being paid by the candidate as a campaign staff member?

    There are several scenarios that raise a red flag here:

    • How can an employee campaign while on government property and presumably using public resources?

    • When advising the representative on legislative matters, is the chief of staff (COS) making that recommendation because it is good policy or because it will benefit the campaign?

    • Are lobbyists more likely to get access to the officeholder if the COS knows it could lead to a campaign contribution?

    • How can you separate the two jobs – and which one might suffer because of this arrangement?

    Do you see any other problems that might occur in this scenario, or does it seem okay to you?

    Post your comments, and they will help add to our debate over campaign ethics.

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