Markkula Center of Applied Ethics

Emerging Ethical Issues for Local Government Officials

Check in From the August 10, 2009, Roundtable
  1. Conflicts of interest for officials involved in real estate transactions: Even when using the utmost caution, shared one councilmember, checking with both the city attorney and the California Fair Political Practices Commission, he was still criticized for voting on a particular project. Often the public perception of a conflict is so great that even with "legal backup" an elected official is subject to challenge. In this case, the councilmember has literally drawn on a map an area within which he will not conduct any real estate transactions.
  2. Social networking: Can a public official use a social network such as Facebook for political discussion? Is it unethical for these to be "by invitation only" or "closed" sites?
  3. Blogs: What do you do when someone asks to be paid to write nice things about you on a blog, or asks for "hush" money to keep from writing critical items.
  4. Volunteering: City rules prohibiting former elected officials from serving as volunteers "behind the counter" at City Hall where they may be assumed to be exerting undue influence over city employees, particularly on land-use issues.
  5. Spouses' Conflicts of Interest: Learning after a vote has been taken that the major proponent of a neighborhood park project was married to a councilmember who did not disclose the relationship or refrain from voting.
  6. Addressing budget shortfalls in the city: Eliminating all grants except the government's Community Development Block Grant Funds (CDBG).
  7. Use of emails: Should council members use e-mail to share information with an elected official or lobby about a vote (including during a council meeting). If city does not allow councilmembers to have city-sponsored email accounts, how can the press and public decide which items are personal and which are public record?
  8. Public Records: When the secretary routinely opens all mail addressed to a councilmembers does that correspondence become public record even if it was intended to be a private communication?
  9. Travel and Training: In an era of budget constraints, what is appropriate for a city to spend on travel and training of elected officials and staff? Who decides?

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