Markkula Center of Applied Ethics

Serving Two Masters: Government and Non-Profit Service

Summary of Remarks by LeeAnn Pelham at the August 10, 2009, Ethics Roundtable for Local Officials

Public Servants should consider the following issues when they must balance potential conflicts of interest between their role in local government and their service to non-profit organizations:

  1. What kind of non-profit involvement are you engaged in or contemplating, and at what level? Strictly a volunteer? An officer of the organization? Paid staff member?
  2. If your involvement includes organizing a benefit, especially when you solicit those having business before the city council, you are courting trouble. Transparency and disclosure can help here, but they cannot negate an illegal or unethical action.
  3. You must respect your role as a public servant. There are rules that govern what you can and cannot do, but, beyond that, you must consider the potential for damaging the public trust.
  4. Consider carefully the nature of the non-profit organization to help guide your actions. Is it one set up to support governmental interests, such as affordable housing or planting more street trees? If so, might your organizational affiliations exert an undue influence on your decisions?

Pelham concluded by reminding the Roundtable participants that "you don't give up your citizenship when you take public office." Your personal values and areas of interest are going to be a part of your life as an elected official.

However, skepticism runs high among the public who may well consider politics by its nature to be unethical, she said. That is why it is especially important to show the voters that you are looking out for their interests, not just your own personal favorite causes.

LeeAnn Pelham is the executive director of the Los Angeles Ethics Commission.

October 2008


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