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, May. 10, 2011 10:16 AM
California teachers have declared a “State of Emergency,” marching on the state capitol to lobby for a tax extension to preserve school funding.
Although the rally drew some 1,000 teachers and their supporters, only sixty-five people were arrested when they refused to leave the Capitol rotunda after the building closed for the day.
College students and parents, also concerned about the proposed cuts to education, joined the teachers. Many expressed frustration that “corporate greed and politics” have made educators the “scapegoats” in the current wave of criticism of public employee salaries and benefits.
According to California Teachers Association president David A. Sanchez, “It’s not right that the rich and big businesses don’t pay their fair share of taxes.”
Protesting with signs like “Tax the rich” is not as effective as face-to-face meetings with legislators from both parties. It is easier to ignore a noisy crowd outside your building than it is to ignore a constituent in your office. Especially when just last week the country celebrated “National Teachers Appreciation Week.”
Monday, May. 9, 2011 4:18 PM
Seeking to restore public confidence in local government, The Detroit City Council has released an 82-page draft document proposing comprehensive changes to provide more transparency and greater representation for the citizens.
The chairwoman of the Detroit Charter Revision Commission said that these changes were prompted by citizens who were fed up with the culture of corruption in the city.
Among the significant proposals is a move to elections by geographic districts. If this is passed on November 8 ballot, there will be a major shift in the politics of the city, putting it on par with many cities of similar size.
A series of embarrassing scandals over the past few years have harmed public confidence in city government, according to the commission. “I think the people feel that if they had their eye closer on the issue, or had their hand in (government), this would have never happened.”
The commission is also proposing several significant changes in the ethics rules of the city charter. Among the new provisions are stricter reporting requirements for lobbyists, increased citizen participation, and greater powers given to the Council.
To enact the changes, the voters will decide on the following recommendations:
• To create an office of the inspector general to investigate waste, abuse, corruption and fraud.
• To require all lobbyists and contractors to disclose political contributions.
• To create community advisory councils for each new district.
• To require individuals to live in the city for one year before they can run for political office.
• To give the council authority to approve the appointment of the police chief and selected other employees.
Thursday, May. 5, 2011 3:10 PM
In an effort to dodge open records laws applying to employee bonuses, the city of Burbank, California has come up with an unbelievable argument: “the information would reveal private performance evaluations and erode workplace morale.”
What about taxpayer morale?
The senior assistant city attorney argues the public record request “falls outside established bounds for access to salary and other compensation information for government employees.” Rather than sharing information about individual bonuses, the city provided an aggregate amount--$1 million for the last fiscal year.
Putting aside the discussion of whether or not city employees should receive bonuses at all, the idea that giving the public important financial data would “create embarrassment, morale disruptions and personal dissension in the workplace” is certainly no basis for hiding these numbers. In fact, the city's position raises red flags about possible favoritism or nepotism.
Burbank is facing an estimated $8.7 million budget gap for the next fiscal year. The public has a right to know where every penny is being spent.
Wednesday, May. 4, 2011 3:35 PM
My kids learned about civics because I was an elected official, but the lessons they remember are from the songs featured in “Schoolhouse Rock.” A particularly catchy tune is called “How a bill becomes a law,” and a recent internet search shows the step-by-step legislative process put to music has been also been recorded as a rap song, included in a number of parodies, and appears in a number of YouTube videos.
Apparently that’s not making much of a difference to today’s students, since a recent poll shows that “fewer than half of America’s eighth graders knew the purpose of the Bill of Rights.” In fact, according to the New York Times, “only one in 10 demonstrated acceptable knowledge of the checks and balances among the legislative, executive, and judicial branches.’
The test results were so shocking that former Supreme Court Justice said “we have a crisis on our hands when it comes to civics education.” O’Connor has established the non-profit icivics.org, designed to use Web-based games and other tool to engage students.
In California, where Charles Quigley leads the Center for Civic Education, “the results confirm an alarming and continuing trend that civics in America is in decline.” The problem, he says, seems to be “educational policy and practice appear to have focused more on developing the worker at the expense of developing the citizen.”
How can the trend be reversed? Do you think there is another subject that should be dropped in favor of civics lessons? Are there ways outside the classroom that could teach how government works?
Tuesday, May. 3, 2011 11:17 AM
Small towns across America are used to being ignored. With a population of fewer than 1,500 Hackleburg, Alabama has no radio or television stations, and there is just one road into the town. It was among the hardest hit by the recent tornados that ripped across the southeast, but it took days for anyone to even locate the town.
Once the Red Cross was able to access Hackleburg, some three dozen people had died, and the town was declared 75% destroyed. The downtown is nothing but rubble and the school was damaged beyond repair.
While residents in smaller and rural communities are generally close-knit and ready to take care of themselves in a disaster, it is important to remember that they also deserve rescue assistance. The friends and family killed in Hackelburg are as precious as those who lost their lives in Tuscaloosa.
Monday, May. 2, 2011 5:00 PM
When Nevada Senator John Ensign made his farewell speech in the Senate chambers he was virtually alone. None of the other senators were in attendance.
The joy and promise he felt when taking his oath of office provided a sharp contrast to his final words to his constituents, colleagues, and the public.
“When one takes a position of leadership, this is a very real danger of getting caught up in the hype surrounding that status. Oftentimes, the more power and prestige a person achieves, the more arrogant a person can become,” Ensign said.
In his comments he mentioned other colleagues who had resigned in shame, admitting that it was easy to see their faults but impossible to see his own. He referred to himself as” arrogant and self-centered” and had words of caution for others who serve in public office.
“My caution to all of my colleagues,” he said, “is to surround yourself with people who will be honest with you about how you really are and what you are becoming, and then make them promise to not hold back, no matter how much you may try to prevent them, from telling you the truth.”
My observation over the years has shown me how easy it is to listen to your friends, and how difficult it is to resist suggestions from well-meaning supporters.
But the true test of a friend is someone who has the courage to tell you the unvarnished truth – without weighing in about your re-election. And in return for such wise counsel, consider it carefully when you say “thank you.”
Friday, Apr. 29, 2011 5:11 PM
We’ve heard a lot lately about air traffic controllers falling asleep at work. They join a long list of other professionals who have this job-related challenge. Who are these sleep-deprived individuals? Long-haul truck drivers, medical residents and interns, and – don’t laugh – elected officials.
Speaking from experience, it is nearly impossible to focus on the details of a complex municipal bond offering at 2 a.m. It is even more difficult to have an intelligent discussion and make a decision, no matter how hard you tried to stay awake.
Late-night meetings are a standard in some communities, and a rarity in others. Lots of factors come into play. Is there a public hearing with a packed council chambers of speakers? Did the elected officials make long speeches instead of asking pertinent questions? Were there too many coffee breaks? Or did the agenda have too many items to cover in a reasonable amount of time?
The phenomenon occurs at all levels of government. Redistricting decisions in state capitols have been made in the wee hours of the morning. And more than one key vote has taken place in Congress before the sun had a chance to rise.
What is the solution? It would be simple to say “better time management,” but I know that is not the answer. We need to urge our legislators to accept that science shows we all function better when we have a good night’s sleep. We think more clearly, are more articulate, and have overall better health.
Who knows? Maybe with a few more hours of sleep there will be fewer cranky legislators and better legislation.
Thursday, Apr. 28, 2011 5:06 PM
With the exception of Bell, California, the city of Vernon has garnered more headlines than most cities of its size. The latest news is the worst yet: the California Assembly voted today to dissolve the city of 112 persons.
If passed by the Senate, the town of 5.2 square miles would be the first “disincorporation” in 40 years.
The city has been mired in political controversy for years. Elections were uncontested for 25 years, and the former city manager was indicted last year for conflict of interest violations. Runaway salaries allowed Eric T. Fresch, the former city attorney and city administrator, to earn more than $1 million for four consecutive years.
Assembly Speaker John Perez, who sponsored Assembly Bill 46, called Vernon “a city in no 'normal sense of the word' with no parks, no libraries and residents nearly all connected to the local government. AB 46 ends the cycle of corruption and abuse in Vernon - while protecting the jobs of the thousands of people who work there." The vote was 62 to 7.
Control over the city would be transferred to Los Angeles County, but not without a fight from lobbyists who represent businesses and labor groups.
Wednesday, Apr. 27, 2011 4:17 PM
Are you an optimist or pessimist? Would you describe yourself as conservative, moderate, or liberal? How would others describe you – friends and enemies? Does it matter?
As the stakes get higher and the rhetoric more critical, I suggest we shed those descriptors and focus on what the people want: public servants who act in the best interest of their constituents.
The recent release of the “full” birth certificate of President Obama can serve as an example of months of focusing on the smaller items while the really difficult matters remain log jammed.
Titles like senator, mayor, councilmember, and the like should be enough to let the voters know where to go when they have a concern or problem.
Furthering a divide among elected officials by demonizing or characterizing them on any other basis seems counterproductive.
Monday, Apr. 25, 2011 4:25 PM
I don’t know any of the candidates in the upcoming race for mayor of Chillicothe, Ohio, but I’ve learned of their experiences and campaign platforms thanks to their local newspaper.
One essay that stood out for me was from a lifelong resident who has spent his entire adult life operating a couple of local businesses, serving on the city council, and involving himself in things like going on a ride-along with the police and fire departments. Candidate Joe Sharp also writes about enrolling in ethics, leadership, and grant-writing workshops, and even highlights his tour of the storm drain runoff system. Along the way he has also volunteered as a school crossing guard, and it sounds as though he has attended just about every meeting held at city hall.
I was pretty impressed with his candidate’s statement until I came to the last part.I liked the part about ensuring fiscal oversight, and his generous offer to take a 20 percent pay cut. But as the list of reforms grew longer I became more concerned.
Speaking in the first person, Sharp pledges, “I would personally evaluate the operation of every department to ensure efficiency and accountability. I would take inventory of all buildings and land to ensure they are being used to their fullest potential by combining, relocating, selling or leasing.” This “I” mentality could slip into dangerous territory, leading to council interference in the daily operations of the city. Can he even fulfill these promises?
Despite his good intentions I had to draw the line on his pledge to the voters to “remove the mayor’s office door and make sure you have my cell phone number. I want open, honest, and accurate communication. I will be your mayor 24 hours per day, seven days per week.”
In a town of 22,000 it may be tempting to be the “go-to” mayor on every issue, but there are structures set up in government to allow city departments to operate without the direct involvement of the mayor. And the mayor can only be as effective as the cooperation he or she shares with council colleagues.
While every campaign is filled with energy, ambitious ideas, and promises to the voters, it is wise to remember the local government is still a collaborative, interactive process, and we should try to preserve that.
Thursday, Apr. 21, 2011 5:06 PM
Few land-use decisions at the city council level make it up to the U.S. Supreme Court, but for Councilman Michael Carrigan, the trip to the high court takes place next week. It’s a case worth following.
When the Sparks, Nevada city council considered approval of a casino in 2006, Carrigan disclosed the personal friendship he had with Carlo Vasquez, the casino spokesperson and consultant. The councilman dutifully checked with the city attorney for an opinion on a potential conflict of interest and was given a “green light” to proceed in the discussion and vote.
The Nevada Ethics Commission, responding to complaints from casino opponents, ruled he should not have voted, given his relationship with Vasquez. They found that “a reasonable person in Councilman Carrigan’s position would not be able to remain objective,” and added that his friend had also served as his campaign manager.
Carrigan argued the law violated his First Amendment rights, and successfully sued to get the decision overturned by the Nevada Supreme Court. Now the Ethics Commission is headed to the U.S. Supreme Court, and the outcome of that decision is sure to reverberate across the country.
An editorial in the Las Vegas Sun urges the high court to overturn the Nevada court’s opinion, saying “the public’s interest in good government takes precedence over the elected officials’ rights.” The editors added, “If elected leaders don’t like that, they have a choice—they don’t have to run for office.”
Unfortunately it’s not that simple. The balance between transparency and the public’s interest and the rights of the individual elected official must be carefully considered.
Where do you stand on this issue? Post your comments here and I’ll follow up with a blog post after the Supreme Court rules.
Wednesday, Apr. 20, 2011 2:35 PM
In an unprecedented move, the United States Conference of Mayors has issued a video documenting the increase in what it calls “recall fever.”
The 15-minute film highlights recent recall campaigns against the mayors of Akron, Chattaooga, and Omaha. Although these efforts were unsuccessful, Miami-Dade County Mayor Carlos Alvarez was removed from office by an overwhelming margin.
While the video looks at what prompts a recall campaign (raising taxes is often a key issue), it also underscores the use of social networks to reach voters. These “viral” campaigns are often conducted with few staff members and at a low cost, while the incumbent mayor must spend hundreds of thousands of dollars to defend his or her place in office.
Tuesday, Apr. 19, 2011 4:29 PM
What would you choose: serving on the city council for $6,400 or working as a consultant for a major architectural firm? This is the decision that faces George McGoldrick, a councilmember in Meriden, Connecticut.
The Board of Ethics advised McGoldrick he “could pursue the work, but would need to abstain from related City Council votes and refrain from appearing on the firm’s behalf before any city agencies, boards, or commissions.”
The problem lies in the description of his new job description. As a consulting architect he would be required to act as a liaison to public officials in Meriden. This conflict may prompt him to resign from the council.
But resigning may not solve the problem: the city ethics code prohibits former public employees and officials who are compensated for their work from appearing “for compensation before any City board or agency by which he was formerly employed, or which he provided service to, or was a member of, at any time within a period of one year after termination of his service with the City.”
McGoldrick has yet to make a decision, but one of his council colleagues offered this perspective. “If this was me, and a choice between paying my mortgage, my insurance and my livelihood meant that I might not be able to serve on the City Council because of those things, I would have to make sure my mortgage, my wife, my home was taken care of.”
Have you faced this dilemma? Do you know anyone who has had to choose between public service and a job in the private sector? What should McGoldrick do?
Friday, Apr. 15, 2011 11:12 AM
In government, “revolving door” and conflict of interest are almost always synonymous. And both present legal and ethical dilemmas for public servants.
A special investigation in the city of Port Angeles, Washington, has revealed that although city councilmembers who leave office and then work for city contractors may not be violating the law, they may be damaging public trust.
A report released by the state auditor shows former mayor Karen Rogers violated state law when she failed to disclose business relationships and did not recuse herself in voting on issues related to those ties. However, she did not violate any laws by working for a city contractor upon leaving office.
While the focus of the report is about Rogers, at least one councilmember is calling for a city resolution that could “legally prevent those who serve on the council from working for companies that do business with the city for certain period of time after they leave office.” Councilmember Max Mania said “the city could go a long way in gaining public trust by making it tougher for councilmembers to cross between these two worlds.”
In addition to drafting a resolution, the city staff will also consider holding more training sessions on state conflict of interest laws.
Thursday, Apr. 14, 2011 10:13 AM
Presidents have libraries. Governors have state library archives. But who collects and saves the important history of local government?
The dramatic changes in technology and the introduction of digital formats present interesting challenges to individuals and institutions interested in preserving history. Photos, documents, audio and video/film recordings are the key to insights about our past, and although there is a renewal of interest in genealogy, few of us think about how our grandchildren and great-grandchildren will learn about local history.
According to Deanna Marcum, associate librarian for library services at the Library of Congress, “Many of the collections held by the Library of Congress came originally from personal collectors. It is in the best interest of the Library to help families preserve memorabilia that help trace the history of our communities and nation.”
To highlight the importance of preserving history, the Library of Congress is encouraging “personal archiving” as a way to share in the “collective memories” of our families and communities. “Pass It On “ is a one-day event to be held on Saturday, April 30 in the Thomas Jefferson Building in Washington, D.C. The project, sponsored in part by the American Library Association and other institutions, is a great model for cities and counties to focus attention on establishing awareness of the importance of the ephemera that tells the story of our communities.
Facebook, e-mails, and text messages have overshadowed the basic (and old-fashioned) scrapbook, photo album, hope chest, and shoe box as a means for saving what may seem commonplace today, but will hold historic or personal significance to future generations. I would argue we have an ethical obligation to preserve our past as well as to protect our future.
Wednesday, Apr. 13, 2011 4:15 PM
Most cities have strict rules regarding candidates using city equipment, or soliciting employees for support. But what are the rules if you send an email from your personal account, don’t use the city computer server, and don’t explicitly ask for votes or money?
The city council in League City, Texas is taking that up for discussion after a councilmember sent an email to more than 100 city employees. Tim Paulissen, who is also a candidate for mayor, sent an email entitled “The truth about my position on employee retirement funds.” The message was intended to dispel rumors about his position, says Paulissen, and to show support for city staff, including the city manager.
“I don’t see it as campaigning at all,” Paulissen said. “It wasn’t intended to get anyone to vote for me.” The city’s ethics code, adopted in 2009, does not cover this situation, prompting two councilmembers to agendize it for discussion. Councilmember Mick Phalen, who placed the item said, “I see a pattern being set here that I don’t like, and I need to find out how we can stop it from happening in the future. When employees are away from work, that’s one thing, but going to them in the workplace to my way of thinking can be morally wrong.”
Mayor Mike Barber agreed, saying, “emails sent from any candidate can distract city employees from their jobs. Election messages directed to employees’ city email address are not acceptable,” Barber said. “The time people are receiving the emails are during work hours, which is absolutely unacceptable. It’s like allowing employees to go to a political rally during business hours.”
What do you think? If the email did not violate any city policy is it still wrong? What should the council do to clarify the rules? Can they be successful when the parties involved are political rivals?
Monday, Apr. 11, 2011 11:45 AM
What’s the point in having an ethics requirement if there is no money to support oversight and enforcement?
On July 1, the city of Philadelphia will require lobbyists to register and provide details on their clients and expenditures. The effort is part of the reform promised by Mayor Michael Nutter and the city council to bring greater transparency to city government. But that transparency has a price tag: $130,00 more than has been budgeted. The funds would be used to pay for additional staff to handle the anticipated flood of paperwork.
The proposed increase comes at a time when other city departments are suffering budget cuts. Taking that into account, there is still a strong case for supporting this request. A recent piece in The Inquirer said, “While there are departments across city government that could do more with less, according to Nutter's directive this year, the Ethics Board already runs a lean operation. What's more, its beefed-up role in tracking lobbyists and the influence they might wield on city policy is critical to advancing the mayor's reform-minded agenda.”
This is a case of “putting your money where your mouth is.” Just talking about ethics reform is not enough. There must be sufficient resources to do the job, and do it well.
Thursday, Apr. 7, 2011 3:40 PM
We’ve heard of snow days, vacation days, and state and federal holidays, but the government may create another for us: government shutdown days.
The White House Office of Management and Budget has directed the heads of federal agencies to come up with contingency plans. “Nonessential employees” will be asked to turn off their BlackBerrys during the shutdown, leaving thousands of employees disengaged from the popular technology.
The stalled budget talks between Republicans and Democrats, which forced similar shutdowns in 1995 and 1996, are in large part the source of this shutdown.
The timing couldn’t be worse: spring in Washington brings cherry blossoms, school tours, and families on vacations. Institutions such as the Smithsonian museums, National Zoo, and other popular tourist spots are preparing “closed due to government shutdown” notices. What will happen to homeland security? Passport and visa applications? Thousands of other government functions?
There is not much room for discretion in the event of a government shutdown – no stealth work can be conducted during this period. “Working in any way during the period of furlough, even as a volunteer, is grounds for disciplinary action, up to and including termination of employment. To avoid violating this prohibition, we strongly recommend that you turn your BlackBerrys off for the duration of the furlough,” according to a memo sent to House members and offices by Rep. Dan Lungren, chairman of the Committee on House Administration.
The details have not yet been released. A representative of some 600,000 federal workers has sued the administration under the Freedom of Information Act in order to obtain provisions of the plan.
Woese yet, states and cities are sure to feel the brunt of a government shutdown, as veterans, Social Security recipients, and others who rely on federal help will be turning to local government for assistance.
The government was put into place to work for the people, and with the exception of those planned holidays and occasional weather days, we should be able to count on our representatives to be on the job.
Tuesday, Apr. 5, 2011 4:56 PM
There is no such thing as a free lunch, and the mayor of Los Angeles has learned that under California ethics laws there can be no free basketball games, concerts, or seats at the Academy Awards.Commission levied nearly $42,000 in fines to Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, the largest fine of its kind. Records show the mayor had failed to report free tickets to events ranging from the American Idol Finale, Los Angeles Lakers games, and numerous concerts.
The case illustrates two different interpretations of attending an event in an official capacity. The mayor insisted he was not in violation of the gifts laws because he was performing ceremonial duties. FPPC Executive Director Roman Porter says there may be an occasion when an elected official is performing “some type of official activity. But it didn’t rise to the level of a ceremonial duty.”
The fine could have been as high as $167,000 between the FPPC ruling and the ethics commission recommendation, but Villaraigosa showed he had made a “good faith” effort to comply with the law.“ It is my responsibility to make sure I act in strict compliance with the applicable rules,” said the mayor when agreeing to pay the fine.
According to Porter, transparency in reporting gifts is not only the law but good government. “The public has a right to know which individuals are attempting to influence public official by providing them with meals, entertainment, and other gifts.”
Monday, Apr. 4, 2011 3:51 PM
Wanted: A professional with the highest integrity and ethics who embraces open government and transparency. This week the Encinitas city council will be interviewing for a city manager, using the above description.
After suffering the embarrassment of the criminal activities of the former mayor (he failed to declare a $100,000 loan), the lawmakers are also hoping to find someone who exhibits sound judgement and is innovative and focused on the future. The candidate must be also able to turn around public perception that many important decisions have been made behind closed doors.
The hiring effort is not off to the best start, according to The Coast News, which is critical of the lack of transparency in the recruitment process and questions the compensation and retirement of the outgoing manager.
It seems the city needs a Mary Poppins-style manager: practically perfect in every way. And I think Encinitas would also benefit from a council who would allow a qualified and independent manager set high standards and engage with the public.