Markkula Center of Applied Ethics

Unavoidable Ethical Dilemmas of Newly Elected Local Officials

As part of the Center's commitment to government ethics, Senior Fellow Judy Nadler convened mayors and council members from Santa Clara and San Mateo counties to share the top ethical dilemmas confronting every person who comes into local elected office. The following dilemmas are the top 20 identified by this group of officials.

1. Now that you are elected, with whom can you meet, and what can you talk about?

Members of council outside of public meetings (Brown Act rules)?
Union leaders without violating the collective bargaining process?
Petitioners and special interest groups?
Contractors who are bidding on government projects?
Developers and others with business before cities?

2. What do you owe those who supported and elected you?

Can you show favoritism to supporters?
Should you vote against those who worked against you?
Should appointments to commissions go to political friends and insiders?

3. Whom do you represent?

Your personal priorities and values?
Your neighborhood or the larger community?
Your community or broader regional and national priorities?

4. Are you a public servant or a politician—or both?

Supporting good public policies vs. advancing your political interests
Supporting good public policies vs. the interests of your political group
Supporting good public policies vs. creating political IOUs

5. Where are your personal conflicts of interest?

Family and personal relationships?
Community involvements?
Personal relationships?
Partisan affiliations?
What do you have to resign from?
On what matters should you recuse yourself?

6. How do you honestly present your positions on issues?

When do you reveal your position?
Should you obfuscate your position for political gain?
Do you reveal why you voted for something?
When can you legitimately abstain from voting?
How can you present an honest change of position?

7. What ethical standards apply to the process of decision making and contracting?

What are the standards of due consideration?
What is fair treatment of petitioners?
What is fair treatment of bidders for city contracts?
What communication with bidders or vendors is permitted?

8. How can you use your power and position in other parts of your life?

Benefiting your business or profession?
Job seeking for yourself, for your family and friends?
Favoring your charities, your associations, etc.?
Using your title, using the city seal?
Abrogating parking tickets, etc.?
Using influence to get grants for favorite causes?

9. What gifts and freebies can you take?

What are the requirements of California Fair Political Practices Commission (FPPC) standards?
What actually compromises you?
What appears to compromise you?
What is the motive of others who are giving you gifts?
What are the limits on seeking freebies and preferential treatment?

10. How can you help those who seek your assistance?

Community groups
Other elected officials—I'll scratch your back; you scratch mine
Building your own political IOUs

11. What is your proper relationship with city staff?

With whom can you confer?
What can you discuss with a staff person who is a personal friend?
When can you make specific requests of staff?
What important information should you share with staff?
Are there different standards for meetings, conversations, correspondence, emails, etc.?

12. What information should you bring to your decisions?

Should you rely totally on formal information and recommendations presented to you by staff?
Can you investigate issues personally?
What actions undermine city staff?

13. What is personal integrity in political life?

Your commitment to work hard enough to do a quality job
Your willingness to speak the truth even if it is uncomfortable
Your ability to withstand pressures to influence your votes
Your ability to resist temptation to take advantage of your position

14. How do you handle conflicts between your role as a council member and as member of a special commission?

Differences between your position and that of your city
Differences among the several cities you may represent

15. How do you deal with "friends of the city?"

Former elected officials
Former city officials and staff
Prominent community members

16. How do you function as a minority or even a whistleblower?

Should you join a voting bloc or remain independent?
When should you voice dissent from a majority position?
When shoud you be a whistleblower?

17. What level of respect and civility should exist among council members?

What do respect and civility require toward colleagues, staff and the public, especially when offering criticism?
Toward those you do not trust?
What is your duty to respect the will of the council when you have lost on a particular issue?
When should you seek outside information or expertise?
How can trust be built and sustained?

18. How do you protect the confidentiality of information made available to you as a council member?

Closed session confidentiality
Personnel issues
Contracting issues
Trading and doing business based on insider information

19. How do you deal ethically with the press?

Respecting the confidentiality of sessions and issues
Keeping colleagues and staff informed
Clearly label your views vs. the city's views
Accurately characterizing your opponent's views

20. How can you ethically campaign while in office?

Twisting arms with implied threats regarding current business?
Making current decisions based on political contributions or support?
Using insider information to favor your campaign?
Using privileged access to city government and community to favor your campaign?
Promoting initiatives solely to create a record for your campaign?
Accurately representing your record and past role in government?

For more submitted articles, click here.

New Materials

Center News