Skip to main content
Markkula Center for Applied Ethics

Serving Two Masters: Case Discussion

Can you be involved in community/non-profit organizations without compromising your integrity in making decisions in your elected office?

Scenarios: When Doing Good May Be Doing Wrong

Scenario 1: Which gymnastics club's expenses should the city cover?
Discussion centered around the public perception that the council may vote to subsidize the organization that would benefit the mayor's daughter, particularly in light of the city policy which would grant the funding to the other organization. Participants suggested that not only should the mayor not vote, but he should also leave the council chambers during the discussion and vote.

In such a case, it would be important for the mayor to state the reason for recusal, and to refer also to the standing city policy on funding requests of this type.

Scenario 2: Should the city cover the expenses of the mayor's wife's attendance at a preservation society meeting?

When the city manager's wife attends an out-of-town conference, her expenses should be handled in the same manner as those of anyone else who represents the city at a meeting. Because the city usually doesn't fund this type of trip, council should not make an exception. If the city manager is in the same city at the same time, he should separate the expenses and only submit those that apply directly to his room, meals, etc.

Scenario 3: How do you vote when your council's position on an issue is in conflict with your position on a regional board?

Serving on a regional board as well as your own city council elicited many responses from the roundtable participants. One explained that, as a member of one local agency, he would vote in opposition to budget cuts to the agency. However, when he went to the next meeting of the regional transit agency, he would "switch hats" and vote in favor of the cuts because the benefit to the larger constituency was paramount.

"Serving on two boards with different goals can present a leadership opportunity," suggested one councilmember. It may be difficult to explain to the voters who put you in office why your support went to a board where you are an appointed member, she suggested, but it will serve as a way to inform the public of the various levels of government and how important it is to take a broader view of things.

There is no reason to believe that Councilmember Flynn is ignoring his constituents, since both projects are valuable to the community and will contribute to the quality of life in the region.

When councilmembers are elected by districts, they must think about the other parts of the city as well. Individuals come in with their own values, but are expected to work with colleagues as well as the community to come up with the best solutions.

October 2008

Oct 23, 2015
Government Ethics Stories