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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 city council agendas. clear filter
  •  How Much Should Community Values Influence Land-Use Decisions?

    Tuesday, Sep. 13, 2011

    This is one of a series of  fictional case studies based on real ethical dilemmas. It is designed to promote questions and commentary. We welcome your participation.

    With unemployment at an all-time high and 50 percent of the downtown shops vacant, Tony Pell, mayor of Weldon, had been working with a regional business-development agency to revitalize what most locals called “the dead downtown.” So when a restaurant chain inquired about opening at the location of a closed steak house, the good news spread fast.

    But as soon as identity of the restaurant was revealed, the celebration ended. “Why would be want to welcome ‘Cahoots’ to our town?” asked the president of the Chamber of Commerce. “I don’t want to say no to any new business, but a restaurant that looks and feels more like a Las Vegas casino is not what we want in our town.”

    Brian Petrillo, regional vice president for the chain, came to the city council meeting when the item was first agendized to calm the critics and promote the project. ‘”The demographics for our restaurant are perfect for a town of 50,000,’ he explained. “Two Cahoots have opened recently in the region, and the synergy is really going to be to your advantage.”

    Although few at the council meeting had actually visited the chain, many had seen television ads for the two new locations and were quick to criticize its “tawdry” bar and dining room. “Our interior décor reflects our philosophy – folks should have fun with their dining experience. We believe our theme draws customers but our food keeps them coming back,” explained Petrillo.

    Michelle Kennedy, chair of the city planning commission, was one of many who came up to the podium to speak. “I was shocked when our family entered the restaurant while on a recent vacation. The young waitresses were in scanty costumes that made them look and act more like bar wenches than meal servers. The music was loud, and there was a large stage in the middle of the dining room, so we couldn’t avoid watching the ‘dancing.’ We couldn’t get out of there fast enough.”

    Kirk McGuire, owner of several vacant properties downtown said a new restaurant would be a boon and would draw customers as well as other businesses. Several other business owners agreed. “That building that been vacant for five years—it’s past time to turn it into a chain like Cahoots. Besides, if we say no they’ll take their restaurant to a business-friendly town down the road.”

    “We need to make sure that all parties get the facts and make sure the city council makes its decision based on good land-use planning rather than relying on emotion and hearsay,” cautioned the mayor. “ So I am recommending a subcommittee of downtown property owners and retailers who will meet with the city manager, city planner, and police chief. The applicant will prepare a presentation and the subcommittee will issue a report at a joint meeting of the planning commission and city council. We’ll make sure there will be plenty of time for the public to speak.”

    “We all have our own personal preferences,” explained the city manager, “but we cannot let those individual opinions jeopardize the revitalization of our downtown.”

    Discussion questions. Please post your responses in the comment section.

    • If Cahoots meets all the zoning, parking, and other land-use planning requirements, is it fair for the city council to deny their application?

    • What weight should council members give the moral values/objections of some in the community versus the support of others?

    • Since the chair of the planning commission shared her opinion on the restaurant before an application was filed, should she recuse herself from further discussion and abstain when the vote is taken?

    • If the restaurant is approved, what could be done to repair the rift in the community?

    • Do you believe this controversy is likely to have an impact on other companies seeking to relocate to downtown? Why or why not?

  •  Who Has A Right To Speak At Public Meetings?

    Thursday, Aug. 11, 2011

    In what appears to be a growing problem, another city council has silenced a critic, using an excuse that only city residents may address the council.

    Kevin Hamm, a former city computer specialist for Port Ritchey, Florida, was suppressed by the mayor as he got up to speak at this week’s meeting. Mayor Richard Rober said he would be “strictly adhering to the charter that says anyone addressing the city council must be a city resident or a party to an issue on the agenda.”

    While it’s true that Hamm lives outside the city limits, he has been a regular attendee at the weekly meetings, often criticizing the Port Ritchey leaders for issues ranging from his public record requests toquestions about  the city July 4 fireworks show.

    Most recently Hamm filed an ethics complaint with the state over how the fireworks were funded, upsetting some in the community who enjoyed the holiday show.

    The mayor insists he did not enact the little-known part of the charter in order to punish the frequent critic. “No,” he said, “this is going to affect a lot of people, including Mr. Hamm, who are used to talking to us.”

    “It’s amazing,” says Hamm. “For as long as I can remember, citizens have been able to speak to the council about their concerns – until you say something they don’t like.”

    Share your reactions in our comment section. Do you believe the city charter violates free speech? Is there another way for the council to handle individuals who speak frequently, or who are critical of their elected officials?

  •  Are Your Elected Officials Asleep On The Job?

    Friday, Apr. 29, 2011

    We’ve heard a lot lately about air traffic controllers falling asleep at work. They join a long list of other professionals who have this job-related challenge. Who are these sleep-deprived individuals? Long-haul truck drivers, medical residents and interns, and – don’t laugh – elected officials.

    Speaking from experience, it is nearly impossible to focus on the details of a complex municipal bond offering at 2 a.m. It is even more difficult to have an intelligent discussion and make a decision, no matter how hard you tried to stay awake.

    Late-night meetings are a standard in some communities, and a rarity in others. Lots of factors come into play. Is there a public hearing with a packed council chambers of speakers? Did the elected officials make long speeches instead of asking pertinent questions? Were there too many coffee breaks? Or did the agenda have too many items to cover in a reasonable amount of time?

    The phenomenon occurs at all levels of government. Redistricting decisions in state capitols have been made in the wee hours of the morning. And more than one key vote has taken place in Congress before the sun had a chance to rise.

    What is the solution? It would be simple to say “better time management,” but I know that is not the answer. We need to urge our  legislators to accept that science shows we all function better when we have a good night’s sleep. We think more clearly, are more articulate, and have overall better health.

    Who knows? Maybe with a few more hours of sleep there will be fewer cranky legislators and better legislation.

  •  Public Deserves To Be Heard

    Tuesday, Jan. 25, 2011


    The consent calendar is probably the most overlooked item on a city council agenda, but it often contains important items.
     Councilmembers in Riverside, California are being asked to  look at the practice of adopting all consent items with one motion, in part because a project on tonight's agenda has  a $220 million price tag, and  could be passed without much discussion.
    Generally the consent calendar is reserved for “routine items” such as authorizing the payment of bills, but tonight’s meeting is an example of a complex and expensive project folded in with minor or administrative items.
    Traditionally the public has a right to comment on any item on the agenda, but in July 2005 the council decided only the staff and councilmembers could “pull an item” off the consent agenda for discussion.
    Mayor Ron Loveridge defends the process, saying these projects have been discussed at previous meetings and are not “new.”
    The purpose of public meetings is to ensure the public can participate. When the issue comes up tonight, I hope the mayor and council will reconsider their policy and once again allow open discussion on all items.


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