Markkula Center of Applied Ethics

Public Sector Roundtable Ethics Hot Spots, May 2010

  1. Medical marijuana

More marijuana dispensaries are opening in local neighborhoods, but there is no policy about this new type of business. Cities have ordinances regulating adult entertainment, massage parlors, and many other kinds of businesses, but this came up pretty suddenly and now cities are trying to cope with neighborhood opposition while trying to draft reasonable policies.

  1. Civility and free speech

There are two issues here: first, what to do when a group of citizens opposed to a project files a lawsuit, demands an additional community meeting or more public hearings on a subject they are opposed to. These stall tactics are used to burn up staff time and money, cost the applicant, all in the hope of killing the project.

Second, how do you respect the free speech rights of individuals who are chronic complainers, or who spend their time going from city to city to speak on many items and offer opinions and criticisms during the part of the council meeting called "public testimony"?

  1. The impact of the economy on labor

Many cities have seen a rise in labor grievances, in part due to the budget cuts and overall stress on the employees. In this environment, it is very difficult to come to an agreement with the employee unions, which becomes a political as well as practical (fiscal) problem for the city council.

  1. Dealing with the zealous advocate

In some cases, an individual or small groups of people become so involved in an issue that they drown out other stakeholders-basically they claim ownership of the issue and marginalize others. How should council handle this?

  1. Pensions and transparency

Negotiations with the city's unions are conducted by law behind closed doors, so that the public has little understanding of how the process works. These decisions will impact the citizens, yet there are virtually no opportunities for the public to comment on labor contracts.

  1. Trying to balance budget without layoffs

Because contracts with the unions may be multi-year, it is very difficult for cities to adjust the pay and benefits of union employees during a fiscal emergency

  1. Impact of the budget on services-communicating cutbacks to the public

Because there is so little local coverage in the newspapers anymore, how can we work to keep the public informed of the budget crisis and reach out to them for support and ideas? One suggestion was to return to teaching civics again in the schools.

  1. Inclusive public information

What means are available at little or no cost to inform the public about the services and challenges in local government? Who pays for this type of public information (sometimes called PR). We can't rely only on the Internet, because not everyone has access. There is also the issue of our multicultural society, and the need to acknowledge that not everyone can speak or read English.

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