Markkula Center of Applied Ethics

Civil Disagreement

By Judy Nadler


When Josh Lawson was swept into office, unseating an incumbent, shock waves went through the Kempton City Council. Running on a reform platform, Lawson promised to "rock the boat" and make some changes in the way the council did business.

His impact was felt immediately. Lawson challenged many longstanding policies and found himself on the losing end of many 6-1 votes. Despite the losses he was undeterred and continued to have strong support in the community.

But things really started to heat up when the majority of the council agreed to the firefighters' union's request to place a binding arbitration measure on the next ballot. In arguing against the measure, Lawson cited statistics from the state league of cities and shared an analysis he had done of the cost impact of binding arbitration. Lawson's statement supported city staff, who had argued against the measure.

What started as a difference of opinion quickly turned into a 10-minute harangue by the mayor during which he called Lawson the "city manager's rubber stamp" and accused the councilmember of "acting like a spoiled child who screams and hollers till he gets his way." Finally, the mayor stormed, "I don't even know why you ran for office, other than to feed your giant ego. It's clear you don't give a damn about this city or the people who live here."

While Lawson had remained professional during earlier altercations, these accusations questioned his integrity. While he didn't want to get into a nasty exchange, he felt he had to respond in some way.

Questions:

How should Lawson react to the outburst?

Are the mayor's comments just part of the "rough-and-tumble" world of politics or are they a breech of civility?

This case was developed by Judy Nadler, senior fellow in government ethics at the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics and former mayor of the city of Santa Clara, Calif. The story is fictional, but the case represents a typical dilemma confronted by elected officials.

August 2006


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