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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.

The following postings have been filtered by tag civility. clear filter
  •  Who Has A Right To Speak At Public Meetings?

    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?

  •  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's OK In A Campaign Blog?

    Monday, Jun. 20, 2011

    Soon after Sharon Bartlett announced she was running for the Huber city council she was approached by Ken MacDonald, a local campaign consultant. MacDonald said he was hardworking and “relentless” when working for his clients, stressing that he was especially successful in conducting opposition research. He mentioned a “bonus” he could offer as part of his contract: writing about the campaigns and the local political scene in his blog.

    Sharon declined the offer, saying she had decided to count on her friends and family to help her with campaign strategy. MacDonald ended up working for her opponent, and began to increase his posts on “In the Kitchen with Ken” (which was subtitled “If you can’t stand the heat, get out of the kitchen”).

    At first MacDonald used the blog to poke fun at her “homespun” campaign and make jokes about her height (she was just over 5 feet tall). As time went on the attacks increased. He wrote a blistering criticism of her remarks at a candidate forum and called her a “pathetic example of a candidate.”

    Sharon decided to “toughen up” and ignore the lies that were being written about her. She assumed, as a political newcomer, this was just part of the “rough and tumble” world of local politics. Her supporters however, became enraged as each day a new post, unflattering Photoshop picture, or personal insult was published about her. More troubling were the articles that misrepresented her position on important city issues.

    Sharon called a meeting of her campaign manager, family members, and key supporters to announce that she was not going to respond in any way. “The people who know me don’t believe anything he writes. I’m going to ignore it, and stay focused on the issues in this campaign. Besides, the voters are going to grow tired of this after a while.”

    The next week she received a call from a friend asking her if she had “lost her mind” by creating a blog of her own. Apparently a new blog, titled “Krazy Ken” was posting dozens of insulting and hateful comments about Mr. MacDonald. Sharon was at a loss to figure out who created the blog. Everyone she spoke to was equally shocked, and she was receiving e-mails from voters criticizing her for this apparent act of retaliation. She began to worry about her chances of being elected.

    The local newspaper picked up the story from an anonymous source and interviewed Mr. MacDonald and her campaign opponent who agreed “all indications point to Sharon."

    The City of Huber had a Code of Ethics but it did not include any provisions for the actions of a candidate, his or her supporters, or “third party” independent involvement or expenditures. “We deal with folks once they have been sworn in to office,” said the city attorney. “During the campaign we support the right of free speech and maintain a ‘hands off’ approach.”

    Questions:

    • What should Sharon do to reassure her supporters she did not initiate nor does she support the “Krazy Ken” blog?
    • Is it possible Ken MacDonald himself writes “Krazy Ken” in order to draw attention away from the negative comments on his blog?
    • Is this a case that a county or city ethics commission should handle?
    • Should Sharon go to the media, including the editorial board, to denounce this? What else might she say to the media?
    • Would talking to the press serve to highlight the mud-slinging and look like a face-saving effort?
    • How can Sharon re-focus the campaign on important city issues rather than having this scandal overtake the campaign?
    • What actions might be taken in the future to ensure campaigns in Huber were conducted in a more ethical manner?

    Post your thoughts and suggestions so we can have a discussion of Sharon's options.

  •  Advice For Today: Let's Go Back To Basics

    Monday, Jun. 13, 2011

    “Politicians Behaving Well” was the best headline I’ve read in months.

    In his recent New York Times column, David Brooks takes us away from today’s salacious stories and reminds us of a time when discussions centered on good behavior rather than sex, lies, and Twitter exchanges.

    He quotes Edmund Burke’s definition of political excellence, including the notion of self respect, the ability to have educated and reflective conversations, and, “to be led to a guarded and regulated conduct, from a sense that you are considered as an instructor of your fellow citizens in their highest concerns…” 

    Quaint as these notions sound today, it is worth reflecting on what it means to be honest and honorable, to be an individual of integrity and moral courage, and to accept the responsibility as well as the honor of public service.

  •  Importance Of Civility Endures

    Tuesday, Feb. 22, 2011

     

    When George Washington composed his Rules of Civility and Decent Behaviour in Company and Conversation, he advised, “every act done in company ought to be with some sign of respect to those who are present.”
     
    On this, his birthday, it is appropriate to fast forward to 2011 and another set of principles put forward by the United States Conference of Mayors.
     
    At the recent annual meeting, 150 mayors from across the country signed a Civility Accord proposed by Tucson Mayor Bob Walkup. The one-page document was prompted by the shooting of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords and others at a public event.
     
    The pledge, also available on line for mayors to sign, asks for a commitment to the following principles:
    • Respect the right of all Americans to hold different opinions;
    • Avoid rhetoric intended to humiliate, de-legitimatize, or question the patriotism of those whose opinions are different from ours;
    • Strive to understand differing perspectives;
    • Choose words carefully;
    • Speak truthfully without accusation, and avoid distortion;
    • Speak out against violence, prejudice, and incivility in all their forms, whenever and wherever they occur.”
    The efforts to remind us of the importance of civility in our society are especially important as partisan differences often overtake dialog. While many of the admonitions George Washington wrote seem antiquated, here is another we would call a best practice: “Labor to keep alive in your breast that little spark of celestial fire called conscience.”

     

  •  A Note To Congress

    Wednesday, Jan. 5, 2011

     

     
    A pledge is defined as a binding contract, a promise, or an agreement. The Republicans begin their majority rule in Congress today with “A Pledge to America,” a document describing, “a new governing agenda.”
     
    At a time when partisan divisiveness is causing even more public cynicism, I read carefully the language in the pledge. I do not deny that these are times that call for difficult decisions, reforms, and a renewed faith in government. But I don’t believe that words like “unchecked executive, compliant legislature, and overreaching judiciary” are the best way to describe those who don’t agree with you. Similar sentiments were expressed in the last Congress, and seem to be de rigueur.
     
    How about a pledge from both sides of the aisle for greater respect for differing opinions? Is it too much to ask that our government leaders check their party affiliation at the door and work collaboratively to address the tough issues?
     
    With each change in majority/minority status in Congress we have the chance to do things differently. We have the ability to return to civility, cooperation, and commitment.
     
    As the pledge states, “to whom much is given, much is expected.”
     
     

     

  •  Stemming Violence During Public Meetings

    Wednesday, Dec. 15, 2010

     The recent shooting incident at a Florida school board meeting shook me up.

    As mayor, I faced many a hostile audience, but never really imagined that there would be violence. (Our meetings were televised, but that is no assurance of good behavior.)

    Most local municipalities and special districts don't have security at every meeting. I can only remember one time we had anyone in uniform at a council meeting, and that was to keep the crowd from violating the fire marshal's "maximum occupancy" rules.

    The disturbing behavior of the shooter was probably due to his unstable mental state, but it highlights for me the importance of allowing full, open, and honest discussion with constituents, and maintaining decorum.

    Some individuals who attend public meetings are downright angry when they walk in the door, and the way they are treated can either escalate their fury or ease it.

    Here are a few of my rules:

    • Show respect for everyone - colleagues, speakers, and the audience.
    • Listen carefully, and take notes if necessary to make sure  you understand the issues.
    • Speak honestly and stick to the issue at hand.
    • Engage in dialog, not monologue, in coming to your decision.
    • Explain your decision and the action you are taking in understandable terms -- don't be tempted to use acronyms others might not understand,
    • Accept the outcome gracefully, even if it is not the one you wanted.

    Do you have other items for the list? Post them and share your best practices!

     

  •  Moderating Political Debate In The Media

    Friday, Oct. 22, 2010

    In today's environment, the news story that is published or aired is sometimes not as interesting as what follows under "reader/listener comments."

    Increasingly these anonymous remarks are turning into vile diatribes rather than thoughtful commentary, leading some news outlets to suspend or modify the comments option.

    Many of the postings appear in the form of irrelevant and nasty remarks about the subject of the story, the reporter, or the news outlet. Most are offensive due to racial, gender, or other types of slurs.

    While people in public life know they are subject to the "slings and arrows" of those who disagree or dislike them, some of these attacks are of a very personal nature, and are not appropriate in any context.

    This type of ranting does nothing to further civil discourse. Rather than cutting off comments, perhaps it would be helpful to have an on-line moderator to encourage the exchange of ideas, rather than killing them.

     

     

  •  How Do You Teach Civility?

    Thursday, Oct. 7, 2010

    When I tell people I do workshops on ethics in government, they often ask "How can you teach someone to be ethical?"

    That question probably comes up for the people at the Institute for Civility in Government, who offer "civility workshops" and trainings for organizations.They wll be featured at the upcoming National Conference of State Legislators meeting.

    The non-profit group "aims to build civility in a society that increasingly tilts towards uncivil speech and actions."

    While civility impacts all levels of society, the Institute focuses on government, believing that understanding the way we approach governing is as important as any positions we may take.

    The workshops are divided into four parts:

    • Know thyself/differences are enriching
    • Listen with your heart, mind and strength
    • Help comes from unexpected places
    • One is powerful, but numbers count

    Do you have any examples of the damage done by uncivil discourse? What techniques have you employed to create an open environment that fosters respect?

    Post your answers here, and help share the commitment to build a more civil society.

 
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