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, Jul. 17, 2012
In the wake of cities declaring bankruptcy, Baltimore’s “audit bill” seems like a no-brainer.
A watered-down version of the bill would require 14 city agencies to be audited at least once every four years. According to the Baltimore Sun, the original bill called for audits of all 55 city agencies every two years. If all goes well, the council will approve putting the proposal on the November ballot.
Councilman Brandon Scott, who is just 28 years old, noted that some agencies have not been audited in his lifetime. “We are a budget built on sand,” according to fellow councilmember Mary Pat Clarke.
The move toward more accountability came from a series of bills introduced by Councilman Bill Henry, who is seeking to streamline the council, reduce the power of the mayor, and impose term limits. While laudable, those reforms do not make the top of the list, nor should they become a roadblock for better fiscal oversight.
Financial audits cannot not be an option for any organization, let alone those who rely on tax dollars. Transparency in government must extend past open meetings, conflict-of-interest disclosures, and access to public records. Best practices dictate complete and regular audits of cities and their internal agencies.
Tuesday, Jun. 21, 2011
Boldly moving beyond their traditional issues, the United States Conference of Mayors voted overwhelmingly to seek the end to U.S presence in Afghanistan.
Meeting in Baltimore, the mayors were not so much making a political statement but a practical one. By bringing the troops home the mayors were asking President Obama to reinvest the billions spent on our overseas involvement to “meet vital human needs, promote job creation, rebuild our infrastructure, aid municipal and state governments, and develop a new economy based upon renewable, sustainable energy and reduce the federal debt.”
The annual meeting is usually a time for passing resolutions on issues such as energy, transportation, education, public safety, housing, and the like. This year the mayors acknowledged the harm that will come to cities when important federal programs are cut due to budget shortfalls.
Wednesday, Mar. 16, 2011
Conflicts of interest in government are often discussed from a strict legal perspective. Does voting on a particular item have a financial impact on the legislator? Are there real estate holdings that might influence a vote? Does a vendor or potential contractor employ a family member?
But there are also significant ethical issues to consider in determining whether or not a conflict of interest exists. And some believe that even the appearance of a conflict is sufficient grounds for recusing oneself from a vote.
A current case in Baltimore illustrates how many ways you can examine an issue and how reasonable people can disagree on the appropriate action. In this instance, the mayor of Baltimore has been voting on contracts involving Johns Hopkins Health Systems, although the company employs her husband. Since he began the new job in December 2010, Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake has voted on 12 items involving Johns Hopkins entities. The decisions involve $900,000 in contracts and services.
The mayor says she has not voted on any deals directly involving the division where her husband works. “I abstain from any vote directly related to Hopkins Community Physicians, where Kent works.” The city’s ethics code specifies: “a public servant may not participate in and must disqualify himself or herself from any matter if it involves a business entity in which…a disqualifying relative is a partner, officer, director, trustee, employee, or agent.”
The city attorney is investigating the issue, first brought up by the Baltimore Sun newspaper. He says that while “it appears acceptable for Rawlings-Blake to participate in decisions involving the university, it is less clear from an ethical standpoint whether she should be voting on issues involving the medical system.”
Proactive legal and ethical advice could have saved the city, the mayor, her husband, and the university from making headlines that impact public confidence in government. The threshold for looking at these issues is, simply put: the law is the floor, not the ceiling.
Thursday, Nov. 18, 2010
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.