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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 public trust. clear filter
  •  Corruption In Bell Confirmed By Jury

    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.

  •  Private Projects Should Not Benefit From Public Dollars

    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.

  •  Social Media Create an Ethical Dilemma

    Tuesday, Dec. 20, 2011

    The following is a fictionalized case reflecting some of the ethical dilemmas facing public officials.

    Mike Monroe and Derek Wheeler were roommates and fraternity brothers at a small mid-western college. Both were political science majors, so they saw a lot of each other, both in academic and social situations. Derek’s wild and outrageous pranks, excessive drinking, and one-night-stands earned him the reputation of playing “fast and loose” in his personal life. He had been caught plagiarizing twice, but was only given a warning. Still, he was personable and a good friend, so upon graduation the two vowed to stay in touch.

    After their fifth college reunion, where Derek became so drunk he needed to be hospitalized, Mike decided to break off communication. His only updates on his former roommate came through the fraternity alumni magazine, where Derek submitted updates on his career. He had a master’s degree in public administration, and had been working for cities in several states. His job in each jurisdiction lasted only two or three years, but each new job sounded like a promotion. Mike figured Derek had finally “grown up” and was happy to learn of his success.

    Mike had also been successful. He moved to Utah, and worked as a field representative for a state legislator. He fell in love with public service and was elected to the city council. He was now in his second term as mayor, and was overseeing a new “culture of ethics” program in River Falls, stressing  values in addition to the rules outlined in the code of ethics.

    It had been 10 years since they last connected, so Mike was surprised to get an invitation from Derek to be a friend on two separate Facebook accounts. Mike agreed, and first went to a personal account featuring facts about Derek’s education, work history, and family. The second Facebook page, with privacy controls restricting access, was for a group called “Derek’s Doghouse.” The other “friends” on the site included some fraternity brothers, but also a collection of men Derek had met or worked with over the years.

    He founded the group, according to the site, “ to celebrate the good life: wine, women, and wild times.” The wall postings chronicled wild weekends in Las Vegas, gambling on sporting events, and exploits with women while on business trips. The 20 or so members were candid, unedited, and occasionally profane in their comments, bragging about their bad behavior. The stories were often accompanied by compromising photos.

    Within days of the Facebook contact, Derek called Mike to ask for a job recommendation. He was submitting his application for the assistant city manager position in River Falls and wanted Mike to put in a good word. “I’ve never asked for a favor,” Derek said, “but this job is perfect for me and my family. I really hope you will be able to influence the HR director and city manager to hire me.”

    Discussion questions:

    • How should Mike proceed?  Should he tell Derek he doesn’t feel comfortable making the recommendation?
    • Should he tell Derek that River Falls is not a "good fit" for him?
    • Does he have an obligation to alert the HR manager and/or city manager of the way Derek conducts his personal life?
    • Is Derek’s secret personal life an indication of his values? Does it matter?

    Please let us know what you think by posting your comments on this site.

  •  What's In A Name?

    Tuesday, Nov. 29, 2011

    The following case has been created for discussion purposes. We welcome your comments.

    The city of Berkshire was proud of its tradition and history. For the residents of this suburb, one of the greatest sources of pride was the city government. The state league of cities had cited Berkshire as one of the top 10 in the category of best-run municipalities, and most of that credit went to Mayor William Simmons.

    Owner of the largest insurance company in town, Mayor Simmons set the record for longest-serving mayor – 42 years in office. The council decided to honor him by naming the new boulevard leading to city hall “William Simmons Way” and to erect a large monument sign in the plaza citing his service and leadership.

    Several local companies, including a restaurant, law office, title company, fitness center, and medical offices relocated to the new street.

    Two years later, Simmons was sentenced to three years in federal prison for taking more than $500,000 in kickbacks in return for steering business to several contractors while he was mayor. He resigned in shame, asking forgiveness from the community and admitting his actions gave “a black eye” to Berkshire.

    Rosemary Preston, the new mayor, suggested the sign be removed and the street renamed. There was an outcry from Mrs. Simmons, who said she had conducted a survey of residents and there was “overwhelming” support for keeping the sign and street name. “It’s just plain wrong to let this one blemish ruin an otherwise spotless career.”

    The council also heard from individuals who said to honor the former mayor was in direct contradiction to the town’s ethics and values. One city hall employee spoke up saying, “I don’t want to see his name ‘glorified’ each day when I come to work.”

    A more practical concern was expressed by the businesses on the street. The attorneys who had offices on William Simmons Way explained what it meant to change the name of the street. “We have to change our letterhead and business cards, notify all our clients, change our insurance policies, utilities – the list is endless. We don’t care if you take the sign down, but don’t make us go through the trouble and expense of changing the name of the street.”

    Questions for discussion:

    •  It is appropriate to name public streets or buildings for individuals who are still alive?
    •  Would this be an issue if the crime were of a personal nature, and not one involving the conduct of the public’s business?
    • If the street is renamed, should the city be responsible for the costs incurred to the businesses?
    • What should the council do?
    • What would you do?
  •  Government And Business Face Public Distrust

    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.

  •  Political Junket Or Just Part Of The Job?

    Tuesday, Jul. 26, 2011

    Politicians who travel to exotic places “on business” are apt to draw negative attention, but in New York, the travel drew a $20,000 fine.

    Brooklyn borough president Marty Markowitz took several overseas trips for official city business, but because he brought his wife the Conflicts of Interest Board found him guilty of an ethical violation. The fact that wife Jamie accompanied him was deemed to be “accepting travel expenses for his wife for each trip, using his position as a public servant for private or personal advantage. Simply put, his wife was able to travel with him abroad –for free.”

    The trips in question were to Turkey (twice) and to the Netherlands. Markowitz argues neither he nor his wife received any personal benefit from the trips, saying, “when they bring you over it’s not vacation –they make you work.”

    In making its decision, the board noted Mrs. Markowitz is not an official staff member, quoting a New York City Charter provision that states “no public servant shall use or attempt to use his or her position as a public servant to obtain any financial gain, contract, license, privilege or other private or personal advantage, direct or indirect, for the public servant or any person or firm associated with the public servant.”

    Although he will pay the fine, Markowitz maintains he did nothing wrong, and called the ruling a “terrible decision.”

    Reading the comments posted to the New York Times article show opposing reactions to this story. Several readers felt Markowitz was a hard-working public servant, and expressed support for “the option of bringing a spouse on international travel, particularly if it’s for more than a few days.”

    The majority of the reactions were negative: “another politician who thinks that ethics laws apply to everybody but him.” A common thread was expressed by one reader who wrote “Is he serving his constituents in any way by taking these contrived missions of good will, which in essence are nothing more than ‘vacations?’ These kind of junkets are what sour people on politicians.”

    What do you think? Is travel a perk or part of the job? Should a spouse or companion be allowed a “free ride” or be made to pay for the trip and accompanying expenses? Let me know by posting a comment here.

  •  Detroit Tackles Corruption With Proposed Charter Changes

    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.

  •  Revolving Door For Public Officials Should Be Shut

    Friday, Apr. 15, 2011

    In government, “revolving door” and conflict of interest are almost always synonymous. And both present legal and ethical dilemmas for public servants.

    A special investigation in the city of Port Angeles, Washington, has revealed that although city councilmembers who leave office and then work for city contractors may not be violating the law, they may be damaging public trust.

    A report released by the state auditor shows former mayor Karen Rogers violated state law when she failed to disclose business relationships and did not recuse herself in voting on issues related to those ties. However, she did not violate any laws by working for a city contractor upon leaving office.

    While the focus of the report is about Rogers, at least one councilmember is calling for a city resolution that could “legally prevent those who serve on the council from working for companies that do business with the city for certain period of time after they leave office.” Councilmember Max Mania said “the city could go a long way in gaining public trust by making it tougher for councilmembers to cross between these two worlds.”

    In addition to drafting a resolution, the city staff will also consider holding more training sessions on state conflict of interest laws.

  •  Ethical Decisions Mean Accepting Responsibility, Not Placing Blame

    Tuesday, Mar. 22, 2011

     

    Public contracting problems can range from multi-million dollar public works projects to small-scale sidewalk repairs. But in some cases, the contracts are for consulting and services, and these are no less important than the “bricks and mortar” decisions.
     
    A case in point involves  Desert Hot Springs, California. Rather than following the city charter requirement for competitive bids, the city accepted the word of Tony Clarke, who claimed success in promoting concerts.
     
    Without the standard vetting of qualifications, and without offering the job to other promoters, the city signed a $250,000 contract for promotion of a Wellness and World Music Festival. In fact, the council voted to also pay $15,000 to the same man to conduct a “feasibility report” on the project.
     
    Other promoters showed interest, but were not invited to submit proposals. When it became evident the contractor was unable to fulfill his promises, the city decided to conduct an “abbreviated open solicitation” for proposals, giving interested parties 10 days rather than the standard two months to respond.
     
    When the mayor, council, and city manager were asked how such a basic requirement for competitive bids could be overlooked, there were plenty who assigned blame, but no one who took responsibility. Ethical government calls for honesty and transparency. That means admitting mistakes, and taking corrective measures to restore public confidence. It also calls for changes in process and policy to avoid similar schemes in the future.
     

     

  •  Don't Delete This

    Friday, Feb. 25, 2011

     

    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.”
     

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