Judy Nadler, senior fellow in government ethics at the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics, looks at ethical dilemmas, scandals, and best practices in government.
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Tuesday, Feb. 19, 2013
Although the Augusta, Georgia ethics code says it is illegal, at least one commissioner has confirmed his company has been a subcontractor on a city project.
“The amount of money is not that much (that) we make for profit,” says Commissioner Wayne Guilfoyle. His tile company did work at the airport--$70,000 worth of work -- in direct violation of the city’s code of ethics. “The bidding process started before I came on board,” he explained. “I didn’t hide anything from the media or any one of my colleagues. I abstained on every issue.”
The code states clearly “It shall be unethical for any Augusta-Richmond County Employee or public official to transact in an business or participate directly or indirectly in a procurement contract.”
Commissioner Alvin Mason responded by saying, “There shouldn’t be a single commissioner up here benefiting directly or indirectly dealing with government dollars.” There may be others who are also working for the city, according to the report by the television station WRDW. The commissioners are responsible for deciding how to deal with the violations.
- Is it enough to recuse yourself from a vote when your company is benefiting from a public contract?
- What action do you think the commissioners should take?
Tuesday, Oct. 16, 2012
Recognizing the behavior of a few can damage the reputation of an entire department, the Cumberland Valley Volunteer Firemen’s Association created a “National Firefighters Code of Ethics.”
The National Fire Academy (NFA) in Maryland has adopted that document, and copies are hung in every classroom building. The information is in all NFA student manuals and eventually, will be in all textbooks utilized at colleges and universities where accredited fire-related courses are taught.
A special Web site, www.Firefighterbehavior.com, includes information on the history of the document, and notes that Facebook posts, off-duty behavior, and the problems in the personal lives of firefighters can give the public the impression that “all” individuals in the fire service engage in questionable behavior. This misconception is "eroding the high moral ground" of the fire service, and may tarnish the reputation of a well-respected institution.
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.
- 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”?
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.”
Thursday, Jul. 7, 2011
Summer jobs are hard to come by, so you can imagine the response from the public when it was revealed that the mayor of Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania hired his daughter and niece to work at city hall this summer.
Mayor Tom Leighton saw nothing wrong with the hires, which had been recommended by the city’s human relations manager. But the positions had not been posted—so the general public didn’t know about them- and the mayor signed the paperwork.
When I spoke with the reporter covering the story for the Citizen’s Voice, the first thing that came to mind was nepotism, a violation of ethics laws. The mayor was asked if he thought the decision was a violation of the state Ethics Act. “Not that I’m aware of, I don’t think.”
The reader comments in the article “Leighton rubber stamped family jobs,” decried the mayor’s actions and expressed concern that there might be other problems at city hall. “It’s now the time to look into other shady deals that come out of this mayor’s office,” wrote one reader. Another vowed to mail a complaint to the State Ethics Commission.
This type of negative response is only one of the consequences of nepotism, broadly defined as showing favoritism to members of the family. There are several other serious concerns:
• Fairness. Was the same opportunity given to all members of the public to apply for these positions? It looks like the mayor’s relatives had an advantage not offered to others.
• Competency. Favoritism undermines the confidence in the qualifications of the employee. In other words, was this person hired on the basis of ability and experience, or because of a family connection? Favoritism can also create tension among employees who may feel there is an unfair standard in performance reviews.
• Public trust. As the comments from the readers show, there is already skepticism about government employees, and nepotism only makes it worse.
To read more about favoritism and nepotism, including case studies, visit our Web site.
Wednesday, Jul. 6, 2011
With the conviction of former Governor Rod Blagojevich, Illinois has another scandal to overcome, and Governor Pat Quinn says he is ready to enact sweeping reforms. “This is my mission,” he said, “to reform our government so we do not have governors going to jail.”
Quinn is proposing an “ethics initiative” including reforms such as new limits on campaign fundraising as well as strengthening the Illinois Freedom of Information Act. He is even suggesting “giving the voters the opportunity at the ballot box to pass strong, no-nonsense ethics laws to protect the taxpayers and protect the public.”
But as an editorial in the Northwest Herald points out, Quinn has already made some decisions that call into question his true commitment to reform. “Quinn’s deeds must match his words.” In particular, the paper criticizes a legislative and congressional “remap” that was rejected by his Reform Commission.
Changing the ethical culture of a city or state with a history of corruption is a big job, and one that can only be accomplished with when leaders take strong actions that match their promises.
Tuesday, Apr. 19, 2011
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?
Thursday, Mar. 31, 2011
The role of an ethics commission is an important one. It can provide an independent look at charges of impropriety, and be protected from the political impact of disciplinary hearings.
A recent column
in the Chronicle-Herald, a Canadian paper, criticizes the Halifax regional councillors for their proposal to hire an integrity commissioner. Describing such a person as an “ethics nanny,” Marilla Stephenson cites the cost of adding the position as one opposing argument. She says the 24-member council should be able to do the job themselves, even in a divisive and “backstabbing” environment.
According to a story from CBC News,
the Council adopted the code of conduct in May 2009, but without guidelines for implementation. “During that time, council has continued to grapple with two main violations of the code — leaks to the news media and questions surrounding abuse of alcohol at public functions.”
Councilor Linda Mosher supports the new position, saying that self-policing doesn’t work. “So, if we don't have any third-party integrity commissioner or somebody that we can go to, these issues just keep coming and coming,” she said. "We owe it to the public. We're elected public officials. We have to treat people with dignity and respect and treat our taxpayers the same way."
Do you think elected officials can “police” themselves when it comes to ethical behavior? In these difficult economic times is it worth the cost to add an integrity commissioner or create an ethics commission?
Post your thoughts and best practices here.
Tuesday, Mar. 1, 2011
March is National Ethics Awareness Month.
And the folks in northwest Indiana are looking to do something to focus on ethics in government. Residents in the Chicago/Indiana area are painfully aware of what it’s like to be criticized for patronage jobs, corruption, and felony indictments of top-level officials. So public officials are holding a program on March 11 that “holds the promise of shedding more light on these challenging problems in our community.”
Convened by the Quality of Life Council, and supported by other good government groups, the "Ethics in Government: Northwest Indiana at the Crossroads"
workshop will feature presentations by the Shared Ethics Advisory Committee, the Better Government Association of Chicago, and the Indiana attorney general. A facilitated panel discussion includes a mayor, town manager, state representative, state senator, and U.S Attorney.
This is not the first effort at ethics reform in the region. In 2005 three communities formed a Shared Ethics Advisory Commission. More have joined, and other cities provide ethics training to employees. On the state level, legislation has been introduced that would force disclosure of conflicts of interest, something that is required in many other states.
There are 31 days in March, plenty of time to focus on ethics. And plenty of time to commit to having every day be about ethics awareness.
Friday, Feb. 25, 2011
Managing the flow of a public meeting can be difficult, and the city council in Bartlesville, Oklahoma hopes a new format and rules of order will streamline the process.
The town of 36,000 is also looking at televising meetings when action is taken, and adopting guidelines for public comment. The council will also establish a code of ethics that would apply to all elected officials and employees, as well as members of boards, trusts, committees, and authorities in the city.
An ethics task force will be formed, drawing in part on individuals who have served on Bartlesville’s charter review committee. Several councilmembers will also be on the task force.
The good news is that there are many resources available to local officials interested in developing or updating an ethics code. An annotated list is available on the Markkula Center’s government ethics page, http://www.scu.edu/ethics/links/links.cfm?cat=GOVNT
If you have additional suggestions, please post them here.