Will city's ethics reform bear fruit?
City Task Force Could Learn a Lesson from Picking Cherries
On a recent Saturday I was out on a limb, literally. Perched atop a 6-foot
ladder, in the middle of my cherry tree, I found myself thinking about
my experiences with government ethics, first as mayor of Santa Clara and
now as a senior fellow at the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics. As San
Jose's task force on ethics meets to review and revise ethics provisions
of the San Jose Municipal Code, I offer the following observations on
some similarities between picking cherries and addressing government ethics:
The low-hanging fruit may be the easiest to pick. In fact, many passers-by
have helped themselves to basketfuls, but you can't bring in a good
harvest by concentrating only on it. By analogy, it would be easy
to identify those elements of the lobbying ordinance which call for
obvious change, and let it go at that. But if the task force simply
addresses the formal registration and reporting requirements for lobbyists
without scrutinizing the role lobbyists play in campaign fundraising,
it will not have finished its job.
Things are not always as they seem. From the ground, the cherries
all looked great, but when I reached for a particularly beautiful
bunch, I was disappointed to find that several had been partially
eaten by the birds. Similarly, the ethics policies that look good
at a glance, upon closer inspection, may not be as strong as you thought.
For example, should council members be required to keep a log of meetings
with lobbyists, it is possible that formal, organized meetings will
give way to informal, "chance'' meetings.
Sometimes you can't see the cherries for the tree. Climbing up into
the tree, I could see just those things immediately in front of me.
But I was missing other spots, within my reach. I was literally too
close to see more than just a small area. Because ethics is a broad
topic, covering more than just a small subject area, it may be difficult
to see those things which are obvious to others. For example, if the
suggestion to disclose campaign and officeholder contributions is
adopted, it may not address the underlying issue of the influence
of money on elected officials. Ethics includes issues such as conflict
of interest, campaign finance, open meetings, and more.
You can pick cherries alone, but it is much better to enlist help.
While I enjoyed the solitary aspects of being up in the tree, I was
much more productive with outside help. Not only could those on the
ground give good advice, they also helped steady the ladder and unload
my basket. The Task Force has enlisted great input from outside groups,
such as the League of Women Voters, the Institute for Local Self Government,
and the labor unions, but sharing the discussion and decision with
the community and City Council would benefit everyone. In a similar
way, inviting input from city employees, from grounds maintenance
workers up to senior staff, would help identify trouble spots and
may even lead to some practical suggestions for reform.
Not everything ripens at the same time. Once on a roll, it was difficult
to stop picking, even though there were some cherries "not quite''
ripe. It was tempting to pick them anyway, knowing it would take effort
to go back into the tree in a week. In ethics, there is a fine balance
between accomplishing everything at once, on a deadline, and taking
the time to make sure you've covered everything. The task force needs
to temper its admirable desire to take quick action with a plan to
revisit the issues at a specified future time.
It's not as easy as it looks. I have great respect for those who
pick fruit. It is scary to be out on a limb, but the rewards are great.
Tackling ethics issues is equally scary. But maintaining and strengthening
the public's confidence is a reward worth pursuing.
This article was written for the San Jose Mercury News and
appeared there on Monday, June 21, 2004.