It was clear to everyone in Northway that there was no love between Mayor H.G. Nelson and Councilmember Howard McNair. Both had served on the council for more than a decade, and what began as a friendly rivalry had escalated to a pattern of name-calling and shouting during the televised council meetings. After much effort on the part of a mediator, the two reached a tenuous peace pact, each agreeing to remain civil during the meetings and to comment only on the facts of an issue and not on personalities.
The peace lasted only a few weeks. In a letter to the editor of the local newspaper entitled "An open letter to the community," McNair charged the mayor with gross negligence in approving an extension of hours at a local card room. "It's clear that this bozo we call the mayor is in the pocket of the gambling interests. He is a disgrace to the hard-working, God-fearing people of our city. Beware the devil!"
The council and residents quickly weighed in through letters to the paper and calls to the local radio talk shows. Some felt McNair had a right to express his opinion, and because he had done it in the paper and not at the council meeting, there was no breach of the agreement. "This is a free country, thank God," wrote one resident. "We all have a right to speak our minds." Others argued that personal attacks, no matter the venue, were counter-productive and an embarrassment. "How can we tell our kids to behave on the playground when our council can't behave themselves?" asked one citizen. The city manager and staff felt demoralized and at a loss for how to repair the damage. They wondered how they could effectively continue with the city's work.
Is it ever okay to criticize a public official?
What is the best way for Councilmember McNair to voice his concerns?
What should the mayor do? Respond in kind or ignore the attack?
This case was developed by Judy Nadler, senior fellow in government ethics at the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics and former mayor of the city of Santa Clara, Calif. The story is fictional, but the case represents a typical dilemma confronted by elected officials.