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 transparency
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Thursday, Mar. 21, 2013
Five of six former Bell, California councilmembers were found guilty of stealing millions of dollars from the city, the latest chapter in a story that triggered an investigation of local government salaries across the country.
Although there are only 35,000 residents in the southern California city, the former mayor and council drew an annual salary of $100,000 by creating and serving on various boards and authorities that were found to be a “front” for exceeding the city charter’s salary limit of $8,076.
Their justification is one heard frequently from public officials: we work hard, spend long hours, and often spend nights and weekends conducting duties as city councilmembers. While this may be true, these excuses cannot justify taking more than $1.3 million for their part-time positions.
Perhaps the worst blow to the city and to local government was the outrageous and illegal activities of the former city manager, Robert Rizzo. His salary of $800,000 (double the salary of President Obama) made him not only rich but also powerful. Testimony from city employees highlighted the fear they felt in disobeying his orders.
In fact, the city clerk testified in the trial that she “signed minutes of meetings she never attended and that she was ordered to provide false salaries to a resident who made a public records request.” Rizzo and his assistant Angela Spaccia, will face a jury in the coming months.
While residents expressed relief at the verdicts, the story is far from over. Not only does the city need to regain public trust, the rest of the cities across the state and the nation must pay close attention to this cautionary tale, and ensure that checks and balances are in place to avoid corruption.
Monday, Mar. 18, 2013
Using a 10-point “transparency checklist,” Sunshine Review has awarded the City of Phoenix it’s “Sunny Award” for outstanding transparency on a local government website.
They city’s phoenix.gov site has won the award for the past four years, and is one of only 247 state and local government organizations to earn the accolade. More than 1,000 qualified sites were reviewed by the non-profit organization that dedicates its work to local and state government transparency.
The Phoenix website ranked high for information on budget, taxes, elected officials, audit reports, public meetings, public records, and building and zoning. Vice Mayor Bill Gates was proud of the accomplishment. “It is great to once again have this third-party acknowledgement that the city’s website continues to offer residents a clear view inside City Hall.”
Michael Barnhart, president of Sunshine Review, says the award-winning government websites “empowers citizens and keeps government accountable to the people.”
Tuesday, Sep. 11, 2012
Elected officials are likely to tell you that their jobs are 24/7, and that they must be available at any time to interact with the voters. I disagree.
While the oath of office commits an individual to serve the public, it does not anticipate round-the-clock access, especially for directors elected to special districts, often a part-time responsibility.
A recent investigative report showed elected officials from the Santa Clara Valley Water District in California, were reimbursed for things ranging from installation of in-home Internet access to attendance at social events. The NBC Bay Area reporters found not only were board members being paid for “official” board meetings, they were also charging for events where water district matters were not discussed. (They are also paid $286 when they meet with the district CEO.)
The district allows a “per-diem fee for attendance at events, as each member determines will best enable them to serve the District.” This broad definition has led to board members charging the public for membership fees in a Rotary Club, professional engineering societies, attendance at banquets and picnics, and the like. Directors justify such expenses as a way of "interacting" with their constituents.
Two directors “maxed out” on the amount they could charge to the public for meeting fees alone: $34,323.60. Director Patrick Kwok received $57,462 last year for meetings plus benefits and travel.
Public scrutiny will lead to changes in some of these expenses, as many are unjustified. A new practice will require posting on the Web this type of spending by directors each quarter. Much more can and should be done to decrease spending and increase transparency.
Tuesday, Aug. 14, 2012
Refusing to allow the televising of an important tax hearing last week adds to the cynicism about transparency in government.
California senate leader Darrell Steinberg has apologized for barring television cameras in a hearing on November ballot measures. The legislator said he acted “out of concern the hearing would provide fodder for political ads.” In an open apology before reporters, Steinberg told them “It wasn’t right and won’t happen again as long as I am here.”
The situation has all the marks of a political action. Steinberg supports Proposition 30, a measure to increase taxes. Individuals opposed to the measure were expected to testify. An opponent of the proposition, Senator Lois Wolk, was shocked to learn the hearings were not going to be televised. As chair of the Senate Governance and Finance Committee, she said the decision was made without prior notice or her approval.
“I strongly disagree with the decision, as the hearing was held to fulfill a state-mandated discussion on the initiatives so as to inform the public.” An audio was available over the Internet, but the purpose and rule of the laws are to provide the greatest access and transparency available.
That either side would sidestep that mandate because of a fear that excerpts might be used in campaign commercials is a sad commentary on the state of elective politics.
Tuesday, Jun. 12, 2012
The job-training program for ex-offenders was intended to teach upholstering skills that could mean future employment. But a story in the Louisville Courier-Journal reveals that the councilwoman overseeing the program for the past five years may be the biggest beneficiary.
“Records provide no evidence that any ex-offenders attended the upholstery-training program, on which more than $30,000 of city tax dollars was spent between March 2007 and November 2011,” according to the paper.
The corrections director, who described the program as “goofy” said his department was never asked to refer ex-offenders to the program. Mayor Greg Fischer shut it down, describing it as “an inappropriate use of taxpayer money.”
Record keeping was sporadic, and Councilwoman Barbara Shanklin initially denied participating. She later admitted she and her son upholstered their own couches in the program. And while the program was established to provide trade skills for ex-offenders, two community participants said they were told the class was open to the public.
The lack of accountability presents legal and ethical problems. Linda Haywood, the instructor, was a long-time personal friend of Shanklin, and was paid $100 per class. When sign-in sheets were finally required, they showed 91 classes had been held, and that 80 were attended by a single person. The councilwoman’s name showed up 15 times, and her son signed in for 23 classes, where he was the sole student. Other family members also took advantage of the classes.
At the very least, programs funded with tax dollars must have a clear mission, keep accurate records, meet goals, and be transparent to the government and the public.
Tuesday, Mar. 20, 2012
Spring officially begins today, but spring fever began early for some cities that own ballparks. So while much discussion is focused on how free Superbowl tickets are distributed, an equally important question can be asked about baseball: Who is entitled to free access to ballpark suites?
In Arizona cities like Scottsdale, Phoenix, and Tempe, there is no policy regarding use of the taxpayer-paid suites. The cities of Goodyear and Glendale are the only two of eight cities with a formal policy regarding the use of the suites, used for watching spring training of major league baseball teams.
Economic development is the reason some cities cite as the reason to invite business owners to use the suites. Scottsdale’s economic developer says box or suite seating rank “in the top 5 tools that a city could use to attract businesses.”
This one-on-one with elected officials can leave the impression that city business is being discussed outside the appropriate public forums. According to Maria Laughner, manager of Peoria’s business and real estate development, having guests allows “for a relaxed and neutral environment in which to meet and talk about projects.”
A lack of reporting on the use of the suites creates a disturbing lack of transparency. And while Glendale documents the economic development benefits by disclosing those who attend the ball games, they keep those records for only one year.
In addition to elected officials and business leaders, churches and non-profit organizations also benefit from free tickets. But with no guidelines for who does or doesn’t get prime seats, it will continue to look like a “perk.”
Monday, Dec. 12, 2011
Are there any rules requiring an elected official to disclose board membership on a non-profit organization? Is it ethical for a councilmember to fundraise for a favorite charity? For the purposes of getting free tickets to a concert or sporting event, what is the definition of “ceremonial role” or “in an official capacity?” These were some of the questions discussed at the recent meeting of the Council on Governmental Ethics Laws (COGEL).
Nearly 300 individuals from the United States, Canada, Australia, and Brazil traveled to Nashville to share best practices, get updates on ethics laws, and learn the latest on lobbying, campaigns, freedom of information requests, and many more issues.
The use of social media was a hot topic, and tech-savvy participants were busy tweeting during the panel discussions. Enforcement of ethics violations, including fine structures prompted spirited debate, as did the Citizens United decision.
Look to this blog and my tweets in the coming weeks for more on the conference. I invite all who attended to comment at the end of this blog on what was the your most significant “take away” from the meeting.
Monday, Nov. 28, 2011
Transparency in government is not limited to those who hold office. Many states require detailed reporting of economic interests, not only of the candidate or office holder, but also of their family members, including their spouses and children.
In a ruling just published by the California Fair Political Practices Commission (FPPC), Claudia Chandler, the chief deputy director of the California Energy Commission was fined $6,000 for participating in two governmental matters where she had a financial interest.
Unlike many cases where the conflict was direct – where one has a financial tie to the agency awarded the contracts – in this case, she had a personal financial interest through her community property interest in her husband’s business.
Another stumbling block can occur when the value of stock or property has increased since the last filing, and requires disclosure of that new value.
Record keeping for public servants is like filing your taxes. You must save your receipts, be prepared to back up your claims, and declare the required financial interests –completely and honestly.
Friday, Nov. 4, 2011
What happens when you bring corporate executives and public sector ethics experts together to talk about business, government, and the case for voter concern? You learn that the key to trust is relationships, and that while there are many differences between the public and private sectors, both must embrace and support a culture of ethics in their organizations.
I just returned from Southern Methodist University (SMU) where the Cox School of Business partnered with the Cary M. Maguire Center for Ethics and Public Responsibility to engage panelists from both sectors to exchange viewpoints on the topics of ethics, trust, and transparency. The underlying issue was “the case for voter concern.”
Matthew Harrington, CEO of the public relations firm Edelman, spoke of the lack of public trust in business and government. He cited his company’s “Edelman Trust Barometer” that shows trust has plummeted in virtually all sectors: business, government, media, and even non-profit organizations.
The recovery formula he suggests is a simple one—accountability plus transparency equals trust. The idea of building a “trust savings account” may help when a good organization experiences a crisis, he said, but “a deficit in trust is as dangerous as any economic problem.”
Some other key points from the speakers representing business:
• Trust is intangible, but it means delivering every day what you have promised to your customer.
• Transparency must be exercised in both word and deed.
• Disclosure is the act of giving the facts; transparency is explaining what it all means.
• Encourage employees and members of the board of directors to speak up – to be a “devil’s advocate” if necessary.
• You can make the great even better, but the mediocre cannot jump to greatness.
Next week I will write about the role of transparency and ethics in government, and the benefits of a strong culture of ethics in both the public and private sectors.
I welcome your comments.
Monday, May. 9, 2011
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.