Markkula Center of Applied Ethics

Will city's ethics reform bear fruit?

City Task Force Could Learn a Lesson from Picking Cherries

By Judy Nadler

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.

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