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 3:54 PM
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 3:48 PM
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 4:10 PM
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 4:44 PM
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 5:15 PM
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 11:20 AM
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 5:16 PM
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 3:32 PM
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 4:16 PM
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 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. 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.
Friday, Feb. 25, 2011 3:20 PM
Old-fashioned government record keeping relied on paper, microfilm, and a basement or vault to store documents. Access was cumbersome and expensive, something reserved for investigative reporters or lawyers.
Electronic record keeping
allows instant access, in some cases “real time” access to the decisions being made on behalf of the public. Although these electronic records – emails, voice messages, tweets, audio or video recordings – are subject to public records laws, not everyone complies.
The latest example of selective retention of public documents involves a University of Iowa athletic official who advised his colleagues to “delete this email after reading it.” The email in question involved internal discussions about the hospitalization of athletes after a strenuous workout, and how best to handle media inquiries.
Iowa’s State Records Commission only covers certain “formal” documents be saved for specific amounts of time. The interpretation varies widely within state agencies. The Cedar Rapids city council uses its own discretion. The governor keeps everything. “It requires a significant amount of storage, but we want to have those for transparency,” says the governor’s spokesman.
To retrieve deleted documents from the University of Iowa costs a minimum of $75 for computer services, and $75 per hour after that. Fees such as these are hardly accessible or affordable.
Transparency is linked to public trust. Kathleen Richardson of the Iowa Freedom of Information Council says it best, “We live in a time when people are increasingly suspicious of government employees. The more accountability the better.”
Friday, Feb. 18, 2011 3:09 PM
How much are we willing to pay for open and transparent government?
In California, the governor is suggesting cuts to the state budget that would end the funding given to local government for posting public notice of meetings
. This advance notification is part of the state’s open meeting requirements, designed to allow community input on items to be voted on by governing bodies. Public officials who violate the provisions, found in the Ralph M. Brown Act, face misdemeanor charges and may go before the local ethics commission.
The cuts are estimated to save $63 million the state owes for claims dating back to 2004. There are additional mandates that are also on the chopping block. According to a finance spokesman for the state “this wasn’t an effort to single out the Brown Act in any way, shape or form. We proposed suspension of all state mandates that weren’t involved with either public safety or property tax.”
In a time when every item in every budget is critical, we should not be cutting back on measures to ensure citizen input and transparent decision making.
Friday, Jan. 28, 2011 2:52 PM
in this week’s New Yorker
magazine shows a teacher explaining the three branches of government – executive, legislative, and judicial. A student raises his hand and asks “What about business—which branch is that?”
Good question. Over the past 15 years the role of business in government has changed from one of partnership to one of privatization. People began to ask why government couldn’t act more like a business, not understanding there are fundamental differences in both the purpose and structure of each.
One government service up for debate is the potential privatization of Detroit’s municipal water and sewer system. Setting aside the merits of both sides of the argument, I will focus on what I call the “accountability factor.”
While government operations may not be perfect, they are intended to be transparent. Contracts are to be fairly bid, work completed on time and within budget. Any slip-ups are subject to public scrutiny, and in some cases, lead to sanctions. The costs are out in the open, and the obligation is to serve the community, not the shareholders.
As budgets continue to shrink and the cost of services continue to rise, it will be important for government and business to begin to work together again. There is the possibility that such an arrangement would bring “the best of both worlds.”
Monday, Jan. 24, 2011 4:29 PM
When I read that Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas amended his financial disclosure forms I was surprised that he had overlooked some items. When I read that he amended forms dating back 13 years I was shocked.
Surely a man of his qualifications and with his staff would realize that disclosing financial information is fundamental to virtually every judge and officeholder. Yet he failed to disclose income from his spouse--in fact he marked the box indicating no income from her.
This hides the fact that the Heritage Foundation disclosed payments of some $690,000 to his wife between 2003 and 2007. More puzzling is the fact that until 1996, he included her income on his forms.
No one is above the law. Disclosure is both a legal and ethical issue, and should not be taken lightly. A discovery such as this for a local or state officeholder would likely bring a substantial fine.
What do you think the appropriate enforcement action should be for a Supreme Court Justice?
Wednesday, Jan. 12, 2011 4:43 PM
The headline read "Hercules mayor to step down," but as my friend the editor says, the most important issue was buried in the story.
Yes, it is news when a mayor resigns, especially one who has been the subject of a recall for alleged unethical behavior. But what struck me as I read this news item was that an interim city manager in Hercules was terminated shortly after he was hired "after posting a series of online status reports illustrating the city's deteriorating financial situation."
Wait - that is the kind of information the public should have. Charlie Long divulged that the Redevelopment Agency could not pay all of its obligations and the general fund was also short of money.
By hiding financial information, or trying to, the city council is feeding the type of distrust that made Bell, California a "poster city" of how not to make decisions.
While I am not privy to all that the council knew, on general principle I know that more disclosure is better, and that transparency in government is one of the best ways to restore public confidence.
Thursday, Dec. 2, 2010 10:00 AM
When individuals appear in court complaining about "open meeting laws" they are usually constituents or members of the press protesting the loopholes that allow back-room deals. In a bizarre twist, more than a dozen councilmembers in Texas are alleging the laws are too restrictive -- and don't allow them to have private conversations.
I have to admit I read this story twice, thinking I somehow misunderstood the complaint. But, in fact, these public officials feel their constitutional rights to free speech are being violated by the Texas Open Meetings Act. They fear their exchanges might lead to fines or jail time if they violate the Act.
Unbelievable! The public has a right to know what goes into the deliberations leading to a council vote, and the elected officials have an obligation to be transparent.
Fortunately the judge didn't agree, but he didn't disagree either. He's asking for more information and will announce his decision next month.
In taking this to district court these councilmembers have shown either a complete lack of understanding of democracy or incredible hubris. It makes me wonder what else they are up to.
Monday, Nov. 29, 2010 4:27 PM
While at dinner with a friend the subject of accountability in government came up. He had just one question: how could the people of Bell, California not know what was happening in their city?
The greed and unethical behavior of the city manager, mayor, and all but one councilmember became headline news across the nation. Drawing a salary of some $800,000 in a small, lower-income city sparked new rules for transparency and a Web posting of government salaries.
While the investigation is not complete, it is apparent the people of Bell believed in their government. Like many others, they probably did not have the time or the ability to carefully track the council actions. Budgets, even in a small city, can be difficult to understand. With the downsizing of newspapers, few cover local council meetings where hints of these problems might have been seen.So while it outraged me to learn of this situation, it did not necessarily surprise me.
Elected and appointed officials are supposed to work for the public. They are supposed to be honest, trustworthy, and transparent. If we assume their campaign promises will come true, why should anyone question what happens at city hall?
This cautionary tale still has people talking. I am hoping it also has them paying more attention to their local government.
Thursday, Nov. 18, 2010 2:24 PM
Today's opinion page of the Baltimore Sun includes a letter from a software developer who is critical of the city's proposal to broadcast public meetings on cable TV. In fact, the writer says while "well-intentioned, it would be far more transparent, cheaper and broader to publish meeting notices and minutes of all city boards and agencies on the Internet."
Whenever the idea of televising public meetings comes up there are always naysayers who complain about the cost of the broadcasts, or lament that "nobody wants to watch the council on TV."
Actually, people do tune in. They can not only listen to the presentations and debates, they can view the slides, and hear the public comments. And they can see how their elected and appointed officials behave during meetings.
An on-line transcript will not show the mayor rolling his eyes or frowning when disagreeing with a comment. Written records do not carry the same weight as hearing the tone and inflection of the speaker. They also do not reveal when elected officials whisper to one another during deliberations, or leave the dais.
The Maryland Public Meetings Act requires all governmental and quasi-governmental meetings be open and accessible to all. The state's Public Information Act enables individuals to access government records.
The letter of the law simply requires transparency. But I know that, short of attending in person, a televised or streamed meeting is the best way to share the democratic process with everyone.
Wednesday, Nov. 17, 2010 4:36 PM
The popularity of the iPhone has sparked a new phrase: "there's an app for that."
For those interested in first amendment issues, the First Amendment Coalition has just announced it has "an app" for open and accountable government with the introduction of iOpenGov .
The free download gives users an instant and easy guide to public access laws in California. Have questions about the Brown Act? You can learn more in both English and Spanish. Need a lawyer's opinion on a first amendment issue? The new app offers a free legal hotline and an archive of frequently asked questions.
Attorneys, reporters, public officials, and government watchdogs are sure to find the news feed helpful, and the format allows sharing information via Twitter, Facebook, and email.
The First Amendment Coalition, a nonprofit public interest organization, created the tool to track local, state, and national issues and to encourage public participation in government.
This use of new social media supports transprency in government, and should inspire others. Anyone out there have an app for ethics?