Markkula Center of Applied Ethics

Serving Two Masters

Case Discussion from the August 10, 2009, Ethics Roundtable for Government Officials

Can you be involved in community/non-profit organizations without compromising your integrity in making decisions in your elected office?

Scenarios: When Doing Good May Be Doing Wrong

Scenario 1: Which gymnastics club's expenses should the city cover?

Discussion centered around the public perception that the council may vote to subsidize the organization that would benefit the mayor's daughter, particularly in light of the city policy which would grant the funding to the other organization. Participants suggested that not only should the mayor not vote, but he should also leave the council chambers during the discussion and vote.
In such a case, it would be important for the mayor to state the reason for recusal, and to refer also to the standing city policy on funding requests of this type.

Scenario 2: Should a councilmember bring a request before the council on behalf of an organization to which she belongs?

When an elected official takes on a fiduciary responsibility for a community organization, such as the Little League, there are several pitfalls to avoid. First, it is important to avoid any appearance that fundraising activities are tied to the power of position of the public servant. Secondly, it should not be assumed that the policy-making authority of the individual would "come in handy" when the organization has a petition before the city council.

In this case, Councilmember Moray is responsible for providing complete and accurate financial information, and should not only recuse herself from the discussion at the Little League board level, but also should not discuss or vote on the measure at the council meeting. This is a request that can and should be made by the president of the Little League.

Scenario 3: Should the city cover the expenses of the city manager's wife's attendance at a preservation society meeting?

When the city manager's wife attends an out-of-town conference, her expenses should be handled in the same manner as those of anyone else who represents the city at a meeting. Because the city usually doesn't fund this type of trip, council should not make an exception. If the city manager is in the same city at the same time, he should separate the expenses and only submit those that apply directly to his room, meals, etc.

Scenario 4: What should an official do if he sits on the board of a non-profit that has business before the city?

When a mayor or councilmember serves on the board of a local organization that may do business with the city, it is essential to make sure that individual puts no undue influence upon the governing body. In the case of the Habitat for Humanity proposal, because there is only one elected official associated with the organizations bidding for the housing proposal, several scenarios are possible:

The council, believing all the applicants are equal in qualifications, may feel the vice mayor's leadership position gives his organization an edge.
A councilmember may feel "If I support his project he will support the non-profit I chair when we ask for consideration on the upcoming Art and Wine Festival."

The vice mayor may rationalize that because he has no financial interest in the decision he is free to be active in the discussion and vote. However, the public is likely to perceive that there is an "insider" on the council who has the power to influence the vote in a particular direction. In an abundance of caution, and to ensure there is no question of fairness to all the applicants, the vice mayor should recuse himself.

October 2008


New Materials

Center News