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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Monday, Jul. 25, 2011 4:16 PM
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?
Wednesday, Jul. 13, 2011 3:58 PM
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.
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.
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.
Tuesday, Feb. 8, 2011 10:24 AM
The race for mayor of Chicago has already garnered plenty of headlines, and we can expect even more coverage in the coming weeks. But an equally important election could shape the future of the city.
A staggering 240 candidates are vying for seats on the Chicago city council.
The 50 aldermen (women are also called aldermen) are elected to four-year terms and represent geographic “wards” in the city. Although they meet just once a month, they handle the same kinds of land use, traffic, public safety, and school issues facing locally elected officials in small, medium, and large cities across the country.
With a new mayor comes the opportunity for change, and voters are fortunate to have the local newspaper take interest. The editorial board of the Chicago Tribune held endorsement debates for the 43 contested seats, and began publishing their recommendations Monday, starting with the first 10 wards. It’s a sometimes dizzying description of Chicago politics, but serves as a vital source of information for the public.
In an era marked by shrinking local news coverage, when public meetings are no longer attended by “beat reporters” it is encouraging to see this kind of commitment by the newspaper. The obligation is now on the voters to take note of this research on the candidates and issues before heading to the polls.
Tuesday, Nov. 9, 2010 3:25 PM
In last week's election in Palm Beach County, Florida , 72% of the voters voted "yes" to adopt a charter change strengthening the ethics commission and the authority of the county's inspector general.
That's the good news.
The bad news is that the town of Palm Beach tried to convince voters to defeat the measure. Now that it has passed, the council president says the voters didn't know what they were doing when they voted in favor of the change. He argues the measure didn't allow the town's residents to vote for the county change while voting to exclude the town.
Prior to the election the mayor and councilmembers passed a resolution urging voters to "carefully consider the disadvantages of the amendment," leading some residents to say they did understand, and the vote reflected their lack of trust in local officials.
The county ethics commission chair is optimistic about the charter change, saying it enchances integrity in government throughout the county. Costs will be shared by all 38 county municipalities.
The mayor and council should stop complaining about the outcome of the election and welcome additional resources to fight corruption, even if they have to pay for it.
Friday, Nov. 5, 2010 1:27 PM
Term limits in California are seen as a boon and a bust. Some argue the law prevents good people from gaining experience and becoming better legislators. On the other hand, term limits have been seen as a way to "clean house" and bring in new ideas along with new elected officials.
Whatever your opinion, one very good outcome is the advancement of city and county officeholders to Sacramento.
According to the League of California Cities, more than 50 percent of the assembly and senate have local government experience.
As long as these individuals remember how much the state laws impact local government, we will be celebrating. But Sacramento is a long distance from many of the cities represented by these legislators, and the pressure of the special interests are magnified at the state capitol.
Friday, Nov. 5, 2010 1:05 PM
The greatest temptation of a newly elected public official might be to jump in, head first. As with diving into shallow waters, this can be very dangerous.
During the frenzy of the campaign season, friends were made and lost, enemies kept track of perceived slights, and the voters were filled with both hope and despair.
My advice to those who are transitioning from candidate to officeholder is to begin your new role by first thanking all who helped you. Be especially grateful to family members and close friends who provided the 24-hour-a-day support that you needed.
Reach out to your opponents. Understand that although you won, some percentage of the voters chose the other candidate. If you ended the campaign on bad terms with anyone, extend the olive branch. It may be difficult, but this simple action will set the stage for future success.
Learn all you can about your new job before you start making sweeping changes. Things actually look different from inside than they do when you are outside the organization. Ask questions about policies and procedures, and take special care to learn the ethics laws and the values behind them.
To those of you who were unchallenged, don't be content with your "mandate." It could be that people were so tired and fed up that nobody wanted to run against you. Remember your duty to your constituents should be as vigorous now as it was when you were first elected.
If you'd like to know more about how to succeed as a newly elected public official, visit our Web site. You'll learn about the unavoidabe ethical dilemmas you will face in office and how to make ethical decisions.
And if you subscribe to this blog, you'll have a chance to become a part of an important ongoing dialog.
Thursday, Oct. 21, 2010 3:15 PM
For the past 90 years the League of Women Voters (LWV) has been a valued resource for the public and the press. Local chapters sit in on city council meetings, study general plans and other important policy issues, and moderate campaign debates. They can be found registering voters, volunteering on election day, and researching all sides of an issue before issuing a recommendation.
Today I received an email from the president of the League of Women Voters, promoting VOTE411, an online voters' guide. By simply typing your address you can access the candidates and their positions, as well as any ballot measures. A special feature has information for military and overseas voters. Best of all, the site allows you to print out the results, which serve as a handy guide at the polls.
"Your vote is your voice," read the email. Fortunately, this internet site makes it even easier to "speak up" on November 2.