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, Aug. 9, 2011 4:55 PM
Given the negative tone of recent stories about government, it is refreshing to read of an effort to celebrate the good things happening in our cities.
The League of California Cities and the California Management Foundation have launched a new program called “Strong Cities/Strong State.” The website will be used to highlight positive stories in cities across the state, focusing on quality of life issues as well as interviews of city leaders. The program also includes a Facebook page.
According to the League, this program “provides a first-of-its-kind platform for showcasing California cities’ success stories, pairing these achievements with testimonials from community leaders and emphasizing specific city services and community characteristics.”
The goal of the program is to profile every city in the state over the next 18 months.
Wednesday, Aug. 3, 2011 4:51 PM
In an interesting follow up to the case study posted earlier, the Los Alamitos, California city council is considering filing a lawsuit against a council critic.
In a 3-2 vote, the council voted to research how to handle a potential ethics complaint against Brad Sheridan, who ran unsuccessfully for city council a year ago. Sheridan, an attorney, has been accused of making “inflammatory comments” about other candidates and individuals involved in city government.
The vote directs staff to look into filing a complaint with the California Bar Association, but city manager Jeff Stewart said, “While Mr. Sheridan’s comments might be considered inflammatory and included references to the possibility of a criminal inquiry by the District Attorney, the statements did not include threats that met the threshold of being reportable to the State Bar Association. Accordingly no further action was taken on the matter.”
Those who voted against the investigation said it was a waste of time and money, and said the action looked like “a personal vendetta” and reflected poorly on the mayor and council, but the others favored moving ahead.
Debate centers around a lawsuit filed against the city’s trash haulers during the campaign, an action that pitted candidates against one another in an attempt to change the council majority.
What would you do if you were on the council?
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?
Thursday, Apr. 28, 2011 5:06 PM
With the exception of Bell, California, the city of Vernon has garnered more headlines than most cities of its size. The latest news is the worst yet: the California Assembly voted today to dissolve the city of 112 persons.
If passed by the Senate, the town of 5.2 square miles would be the first “disincorporation” in 40 years.
The city has been mired in political controversy for years. Elections were uncontested for 25 years, and the former city manager was indicted last year for conflict of interest violations. Runaway salaries allowed Eric T. Fresch, the former city attorney and city administrator, to earn more than $1 million for four consecutive years.
Assembly Speaker John Perez, who sponsored Assembly Bill 46, called Vernon “a city in no 'normal sense of the word' with no parks, no libraries and residents nearly all connected to the local government. AB 46 ends the cycle of corruption and abuse in Vernon - while protecting the jobs of the thousands of people who work there." The vote was 62 to 7.
Control over the city would be transferred to Los Angeles County, but not without a fight from lobbyists who represent businesses and labor groups.
Tuesday, Mar. 22, 2011 2:36 PM
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.
Thursday, Mar. 10, 2011 3:39 PM
I saw a bumper sticker this week that said, “Tax the rich…they can afford it.” But what happens when the tax hits the poor?
The measure was passed by an overwhelming majority, and is seen as one way to generate $10 million per year to pay for basic city services. The budget shortfall in Los Angeles is $350 million. Several other California cities, including San Jose, Oakland, and Sacramento impose “gross reimbursement” taxes.
Medical marijuana advocates are not the only ones expressing concern. Legal staff in both the city and county says the city should not tax something the federal government considers unlawful. City Council President Eric Garcetti pointed out another question: “If marijuana is supposed to be medicine, you can’t tax medicine. And if it is a gross receipts tax on a business, these (dispensaries) are not supposed to be businesses.”
The number of collectives is multiplyingthroughout the state, but not all are designated as nonprofits cultivating and selling marijuana for medicinal use. What do you think about the new taxes? What is the best way to treat the legal dispensaries fairly? Is it ethical to collect taxes on something illegal? Post your comments here.
Thursday, Mar. 10, 2011 12:01 PM
Did you ever wonder what happens to mayors and council members when they leave office? In California, with term limits impacting the number of years that elected officials may serve in office, many politicians look for a higher office.
A study by the League of California Cities shows that many local government officials continue in service, moving up to the state level. In fact, more than 50% of the members of the California legislature have local government roots. In the 2011–2012 legislative year, there are at least 22 members from local government serving in the state Senate, and 42 members from local government serving in the Assembly. Some have come from city councils; others have served as county supervisors.
Dealing with barking dogs, use permits, land-use decisions, and the other day-to-day trials of local government, these individuals come to the new positions armed with invaluable experience. Given the state of the economy, and the budget constraints all levels of government are feeling, the true test of these public servants will be their ability to tackle statewide problems and still remember their local roots.
Wednesday, Feb. 23, 2011 11:23 AM
Protests and politics in Wisconsin have increased the sharp focus on government salaries and benefits, creating a rippling effect in other states. Ohio and Illinois are engaged in similar debates, and California Assemblyman Allan Mansoor has introduced legislation seeking to change the collective bargaining process in the Golden State. For months, newspaper headlines and editorials have expressed sharp criticism of the public sector, leaving the impression that there are a “bunch of crooks” and “greedy” employees running government.
While I am concerned about the inability of public agencies to balance budgets while facing monumental unfunded benefits, I am also concerned about the impact of the hand-wringing and harsh criticism on the future of public sector jobs. Not only are good people choosing to retire from public office, there is a significant turnover among professionals, according to the International City/and County Management Association (ICMA).
The phenomenon, sometimes called the “retirement tidal wave” has prompted Next Generation Initiatives
, an ICMA project designed to “attract and develop a wide and diverse group of people into the local government management profession, including students, early and mid-career professionals, and individuals from other fields.”
In my work with undergraduate political science students I emphasize the many challenges and rewards of public service, and remind them that elective office is not the only way to engage in meaningful change.
Let’s hope the current crisis inspires a new generation of problem solvers.
Tuesday, Feb. 15, 2011 2:45 PM
Friday marks the deadline for introduction of bills in the California legislature
. There is likely to be a stampede, as both freshman and veteran lawmakers try to make their mark by introducing bills. A review of laws passed in 2010 shows an interesting variety of subjects elected officials brought to the floor – the 65-page list is available online.
Among the expected, you’ll find education, veteran’s affairs, economic development, affordable housing, energy, and foster care. Predictably, there are numerous bills related to horse racing and gaming.
Among the unexpected are bills dealing with electronic cigarettes, licensing of pedicabs, commercial blood banks for animals, and self-service storage facilities.The League of California Cities anticipates more than 2,000 bills will be up for discussion in this legislative session.
While some believe the more bills you introduce the better you are as a legislator, I would argue that it is quality, not quantity that better serves the public.
Wednesday, Feb. 9, 2011 2:59 PM
Could you live on $10 a day? If you are a state legislator in Alabama that is your salary. You’ll also get about $4,000 a month and $50 a day for three days each week that the legislature meets in session.
The Web site Ballotpedia
gives salary, per diem, and other information about state government. You may find the information surprising.
Not all legislatures are full time or meet year round, but it looks like the elected officials in New Hampshire are elected volunteers: they are paid $200 for a two-year term and have no per diem. And if you are elected to state office in New Mexico you receive no salary – just $159 per diem (tied to the federal rate).
Much focus has been placed on exorbitant salaries going to public employees, but with the exception of the full-time California legislature ($95,219 a year) most of the men and women at the state capitols are modestly paid.
The ongoing debate about compensating elected officials is sure to heat up again as state budgets continue to shrink. Do you think your legislator is paid a fair salary? Should he or she be given a raise, or asked to take a cut in pay to help balance the budget?
Wednesday, Feb. 2, 2011 4:04 PM
Until recently, much of the discussion in California about medical marijuana
dispensaries centered on where they could be located. Should they, for example, be banned from areas where there are schools, teen centers, and playgrounds? The debate has expanded, as many cities are considering “licensing” the outlets and thus creating a new revenue stream to help balance budget deficits.
Oakland, California passed an ordinance in November that would allow the city to issue permits to allow industrial cannabis cultivation. Under the existing Cannabis Cultivation Ordinance, the city can issue business permits to eight large-scale cannabis growers. There are also provisions for regulating and taxing the businesses.
But growing and selling marijuana is illegal, and only allowed in California in specific circumstances. The council recently received word the city’s ordinance might get them into trouble. According to the Alameda district attorney’s office, “It remains an open question whether public officers or public employees who aid and abet or conspire to violate state or federal laws in furtherance of a city ordinance, are exempt from criminality.”
Possible revisions include safeguards meant to better comply with the law, and provisions to make sure cannabis would not be “diverted” or sold to non-patients who do not have medical marijuana cards.
One patient activist , who presented the council with three pages of her concerns, worries the problems with the ordinance could “negatively affect taxes that go to the city, and negatively affect patients.”
Wednesday, Feb. 2, 2011 10:20 AM
I’m writing this while “attending” the government realignment hearings at the state capitol in Sacramento. I can be in my office and also in Sacramento thanks to a live Webcast
from The California Channel.
This video-on-demand site is funded by California cable television providers, and bills itself as “your streaming source for politcs and public affairs that shape California.”
Archived materials, such as Governor Jerry Brown’s State of the State address are available, along with subcommittee hearings, discussion from the Senate floor, interviews with legislative leaders, and more.
This kind of access to state government can provide the public and the media details about the budget shortfall that are essential to financial recovery in California. It's a great model worth replicating.
Tuesday, Dec. 14, 2010 3:54 PM
The Berkeley, California city council is considering a resolution to "support and free Pfc. Bradley Manning and proclaim him a hero."
The resolution has been put forward by the Peace and Justice Commission, a group appointed to advise the council.
The agenda item poses an important question: Should local governments extend their reach and take actions on issues outside their communities?
It is important to note that the first responsibility of local government is to perform the necessary duties to ensure a healthy and safe community, supporting fundamental services to the public and ensuring fiscal stability.
It is also important to remember that before voting on an item, the elected officials must have sufficient facts in order to make the best decision.
The facts surrounding the leaking of confidential documents are still unfolding. And while freedom of speech and transparency are essential to our democracy, there are times when confidential materials must be kept confidential.
Municipal governments operate under strict "open meeting" laws, requiring decisions to be made in public. However, it is recognized that there are some discussions that must be held in "closed sessions." The circumstances allowing for such closed door meetings are very strict, and include certain negotiations and legal matters.
One might argue that the confidential diplomatic dispatches that have been leaked are equivalent to the matters deemed confidential for local officials.
In the end there are two fundamental questions. Should councils take actions on issues such as those arising from the WikiLeaks? In some communities this is standard fare; in others it is an extraordinary action. Ultimately it is up to the elected officials and those who vote them in office.
The more important question is: Are there any circumstances where confidential information should be leaked?
What do you think?
Friday, Nov. 19, 2010 11:43 AM
The Costa Mesa,California city council is ready to appoint a new member to take the seat of a councilmember who was just elected to the local school board.
Not so fast, says Katrina Foley, who is now backing away from her pledge to resign her council seat after her election as a trustee for the Newport Mesa Unified School District.
California law prohibits individuals from holding "incompatible offices." Although there is no laundry list of offices that might be in this incompatible category, the bottom line is that you "cannot be on both sides of the negotiating table."
Foley says the attorney general's opinions are "decades old and dealt with a particular set of factors that are not necessarily present in our city." The opinions, regardless of when they were written, recognize the potential conflicts of interest and serve the public well.
This is a clear case of trying to serve two masters. The responsibilities that accompany elected office are significant, and require time and effort. To attempt to serve in two offices means one -- or the other-- is bound to suffer. Not only will Foley's governing resources be taxed, it is hard to imagine how she will be able to keep the two roles completely separate.
Ms. Foley should decide which office she wants to hold and leave the other open for appointment.
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?
Wednesday, Nov. 17, 2010 2:26 PM
Budget woes have cities scrambling for money to provide basic services like police and fire. But there are other essentials that should not go unfunded -- including a general plan update.
Granted, most public officials wouldn't put that item at the top of a priority list, but for the people of Willows, California, it is essential.
With a population of just over 6,000, Willows doesn't stand out among other California cities with budget challenges. The city is operating with a $243,557 deficit, and the costs associated with updating the General Plan simply don't exist.
Planning Commission Chair Larry Domenighini says he's concerned that the city will be unprepared for for the future, especially if growth comes quickly.. "It's a major concern," he said, "something the city needs to look at, but it's about the money."
In this case, not only is it vital to keep current with land-use planning and growth projections, the city will be hard-pressed to attract new businesses if there is uncertainty about the future.
The General Plan is the roadmap for a community, and it's difficult to know where you are going without some kind of direction.