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Her Honor

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Handling Council Critics: Is The Customer Always Right?

Friday, Jul. 29, 2011

As a part of an on-going series of case studies in government ethics, summer intern Jason Wu wrote the following scenario about civility at council meetings. Discussion questions follow; we encourage your comments.

As a four-term mayor of the city of Brookstone, Paul Mackey had done his best to manage the city’s budget over the years. Despite his efforts, he still found himself in the midst of an economic crisis. Many neighboring cities were undergoing drastic cutbacks to their programs, and Brookstone was no exception.

Having proposed several unpopular options that would slash funding to city services, Mackey fielded phone calls every day from angry citizens who demanded a plan that would keep their favorite programs intact. The pressure was mounting upon Mackey to deliver something that would satisfy the public and be supported by the council. His patience was wearing thin.

A few days prior to the next council meeting, Mackey had a long conversation with Joan Anderson, a vocal critic of his budget plans. That afternoon, Ms. Anderson filed a complaint with the police department saying that she had felt personally threatened by the mayor. “I asked Mr. Mackey how he could in good conscience consider cutting funding to our bookmobile, and he just snapped,” Anderson said.

The complaint appeared in the local newspaper and led to an interview with the mayor. Mackey denied the allegation, and maintained that he had never shouted at a constituent “in all my years of service as a public official.”

Because there was no evidence to back up either of their statements, the case was closed.

However, Anderson remained determined to make her voice heard. She sent an email to the mayor that outlined her own budget plan, and she also invited him to meet for coffee and settle their differences. Mackey responded by writing, “Your comments are like those of a gadfly-you are never happy and you never have a solution but you always have lots of complaints.”

Outraged by his reply and armed with copies of the email, Anderson filed a complaint with the city clerk and city manager claiming that Mackey had violated Brookstone’s Code of Ethics. Since Brookstone did not have an independent ethics commission to investigate potential violations, it was up to the council members to take action. The city clerk and city manager forwarded the copies of the email to the council members, and Anderson’s complaint was agendized for an upcoming city council meeting.

At the meeting, Anderson pointed out that Brookstone’s Code of Ethics made it clear that officials had to act at all times with “respect, courtesy, and concern.” She added that the code also said that “officials who violate the Code of Ethics will be subject to disciplinary action, up to and including removal from office.”

Emily Lam, the vice-mayor of Brookstone, proposed that the council submit the issue to the ethics subcommittee, which would review the incident. The other council members and the mayor agreed that this was the best course of action.

Two weeks later, the ethics subcommittee delivered their report at a city council meeting. They recommended that the council issue a formal reprimand, which would amount to a slap on the wrist for Mackey. The mayor recused himself from the vote, and the other council members voted 4-0 in favor of the motion for a reprimand and tried to move on.

However, Mackey was furious with the resolution. “We’re facing the biggest financial crisis in Brookstone’s history, and instead of dealing with it we’re just wasting our time on these petty complaints,” he said. Embarrassed by his outburst, the other council members were anxious to resolve the infighting and get back to the business of managing the budget shortfall.

Discussion Questions:

  • How should the mayor and the council handle citizen complaints such as the one made by Ms. Anderson?
  • Is Mackey’s email really a violation of the Code of Ethics or is it simply part of the “rough and tumble” world of politics?
  • Is there a difference between a Code of Ethics and a Code of Conduct or Council Protocol?
  • What can the mayor and council do to restore civility in the conduct of council meetings and repair their relationships with each other?
  • What role, if any, does the city manager play in “keeping the peace”?

Tags: city manager, civility, ethics codes, ethics violations

 
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