Markkula Center of Applied Ethics

A shocking thought: Get serious about ethics

by Judy Nadler

In the classic movie "Casablanca,'' Captain Renault claims he is "shocked, shocked'' to discover that gambling is going on at Rick's nightclub, while at the same time engaging in the very behavior he condemns. San Jose Mayor Ron Gonzales and others on the city council have not even pretended to be shocked by the questionable behavior reflected in cozy relationships between lobbyists and local policy makers. Indeed, Gonzales says he is "proud'' of "San Jose's way of doing business.''

Here's an example of the political culture he's proud of: Your campaign treasurer/finance chairman successfully raises money for your election. You know him and trust him. He meets with you over coffee or at City Hall to discuss an upcoming project. You're impressed with his knowledge and understanding of the issue.

He then either becomes the city's consultant for the project, or is hired by the project proponent to lobby the city council. When he appears at a public meeting and speaks on the project, whom does he represent? Is his testimony more compelling because of his previous work on your campaign? Because of his work with a colleague? Because he now works for a developer who was a generous campaign donor? Does it matter?

Absolutely. According to the League of California Cities' Institute for Local Self Government, "Fundamental to [governmental] ethical standards is the notion that the public expects public officials to make decisions with the public's interests in mind, rather than narrow self-interests or private interests.'' When the lines have blurred, and the staff, city council, and citizens can no longer distinguish public comment from paid advocacy, the process is corrupted.

Furthermore, the lines have begun to blur between consultants and lobbyists, and consultants are not regulated. The role of a consultant is to provide a higher level of expertise, to provide objective information, and allow the management staff to make recommendations for council consideration. There seems to be a "twilight zone'' when consultants begin to sound more like advocates, which is only a short step from lobbyists.

Transparency in decision making protects the public trust. The California Fair Political Practices Commission has strict reporting guidelines on conflict of interest, and many city and county governments have ordinances to cover these issues as well as specific regulations on lobbying and "revolving door'' relationships. In San Jose those lines have become blurred, as individuals move back and forth between their roles. Some are former staff members, guaranteeing free and virtually unfettered access to the decision makers on the sixth floor of City Hall. With the lines this blurry, perhaps it's time for group Lasik eye surgery. The opportunity for change is now, the technical and ethical expertise is available, and, as the ads suggest, it will change the way you see the world.

What steps can be taken to rebuild public confidence in the independence of elected officials? The mayor has appointed a task force to make recommendations.

If the task force really wants to go beyond being "shocked'' to taking action, it should look to work that has been done by the City of Los Angeles Ethics Commission. Los Angeles has been working to clearly identify the parties (lobbyists, elected officials, treasurers and fundraisers, contract bidders/proposers, city departments) and outline requirements for record keeping and disclosure. It has hammered out many of the details, including a comprehensive description of what "fundraising activity'' means (if you provide more than 25 names to be used for invitations to the event, for example).

Los Angeles' registered lobbyists are required by ordinance to attend an information session conducted by the city's ethics commission at least once every two years. Support staff are strongly encouraged to attend. More changes are under way. In a Feb. 20 memo to his city council colleagues, Mayor James Hahn proposed five new measures to ensure integrity and transparency, and "eliminate any perceived nexus between fundraising and government decision making.''

Hahn's proposal would create the most far-reaching ethics policy we've seen. Its specifics can be found in the chart above. It would prohibit campaign consultants from lobbying city officials and prohibit lobbyists from fundraising for elected officials and candidates.

This language goes beyond transparency; it goes to the core of ethical behavior.

Some may say that Los Angeles was forced to take these measures in light of alleged "pay to play'' improprieties. Let's suppose for a moment that San Jose does not have these problems, and that Mayor Gonzales is correct to defend San Jose's political culture as "one of the most open and responsive in the nation.'' That doesn't mean that the city shouldn't take a proactive approach. The best time to address an ethics problem is before it happens.

Interested in learning more about ethics in government? More informations is available on these Web sites:

Judy Nadler is a senior fellow in government ethics at the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics at Santa Clara University. She serves on the League of California Cities' Ethics Education Task Force, and the Institute for Local Self Government's Ethics Advisory Panel. During her two terms at mayor of Santa Clara, the city developed and adopted a comprehensive code of ethics and values.

This article originally appeared in the San Jose Mercury News on Sunday, March 21, 2004.

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