Markkula Center of Applied Ethics

New Unavoidable Ethical Dilemmas for Elected Officials

March 18, 2011, Public Sector Roundtable

On the seventh anniversary of the Ethics Center's Public Sector Roundtable in March 2011, mayors, councilmembers, city managers and other public servants returned to a document they had helped to create in 2004, Unavoidable Ethical Dilemmas for Newly Elected Local Officials. Senior Fellow in Government Ethics Judy Nadler recognized that while many of the dilemmas outlined in 2004 still exist, there are a number of new challenges to add to the mix.

Social Media in Government

Significant changes in technology have created a number of dilemmas related to social media.

  • What does being a "friend" on Facebook mean in the context of government?
  • How do e-mail and Twitter change the dynamics of communicating with constituents?
  • Where do you draw the line between free speech and personal attacks (unrelated to city business) when they are posted on a personal blog? How should elected officials deal with highly partisan rants on blogs? What about an expectation of payment from a blogger for positive coverage or to prevent bad publicity?
  • A Facebook page may have been political for a candidate, but once that person is elected, is his or her page potentially a "council platform"?
  • Can you "unfriend" a constituent?
  • What happens when a member of a neighborhood association uses the group's e-mail list for political purposes?
  • If an official posts views his or her views on an issue before a vote, is this a Brown Act violation?
  • How open should government be? Should all meetings be Webcast?
  • How far do city officials' free speech rights extend?

More Information: Social Media Resources from the League of California Cities

New Issues in Conflicts of Interest

Traditionally thought of as financial interests an official may have in a matter before government, conflicts of interest are now showing up in personal, professional, and organizational relationships.

  • Do you wear your city badge when you visit someone not in your elected capacity?
  • Do you use your title on letters for activities outside of work?
  • Can you raise money for your favorite cause from city employees? Can you engage city employees in fundraising work?
  • Can the city manager approach companies who do business with the city for donations?
  • If you solicit personal contributions to a community event, are the people you approach buying access to you?

Other Ethical Hot Spots

  • How do you create a culture of openness in government?
  • What is the best way to listen to others when you might not want to hear what they are saying? Civility is important, but how do we disagree while showing respect?
  • When can you (as a public servant) act as an advocate? When you're acting in a quasi-judicial capacity can you voice your viewpoint?
  • What are the limits of opposition research? What about a political opponent's private life is fair game?
  • Are public officials entitled to personal space? Can a constituent just show up at your house?
  • How should candidates deal with slate mailers, when they are told, "Buy in or I will go to your opponent"?

Roundtable Attendees

  • Jason Baker, vice mayor, city of Campbell, Calif.
  • Timm Borden, public works directorCampbell, Calif.
  • David Casas, councilmember, Los Altos Hills, Calif.
  • Dean Chu, former councilmember, Sunnyvale, Calif.
  • Kevin Duggan, city manager, Mountain View, Calif.
  • Rebecca Elliot, League of California Cities
  • Jim Fiedler, COO, Water Utility Enterprise, Santa Clara Valley Water District
  • David K. Ginsborg, deputy to the assessor, San Jose, Calif.
  • Melinda Hamilton, mayor, Sunnyvale, Calif.
  • Kirk Hanson, executive director, Ethics Center
  • Lisa Herrick, senior deputy city attorney, San Jose, Calif.
  • Michael Kasperzak, vice mayor, Mountain View, Calif.
  • David Knapp, city manager, Cupertino, Calif.
  • Mike Kotowski, vice mayor, Campbell, Calif.
  • Jamie McLeod, councilmember, Santa Clara, Calif.
  • Diane McNutt, councilmember, Los Gatos, Calif.
  • Judy Nadler, senior fellow in government ethics, Ethics Center
  • Pierluigi Oliverio, councilmember, San Jose, Calif.
  • LeeAnn Pelham, former executive director, Los Angeles Ethics Commission
  • Ginger Summit, mayor, Los Altos Hills, Calif.

The Public Sector Roundtable is a group of local, county, and state officials who meet quarterly to discuss the ethical challenges they face.

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