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Markkula Center for Applied Ethics

Talking Turkey: A Case Study on Government Ethics

Judy Nadler

Every year the mayor of Rinconia is the honorary chair of the Thanksgiving food drive. Service clubs, churches, schools, and local businesses are encouraged to bring donations of food and money to the local food bank for distribution to the needy. This year, the downturn in the economy coupled with the closure of a local factory has brought an even greater need for donations.

Although the role as chair has historically been honorary, Mayor Irving is running for re-election in the spring primary, and has decided to take a more "hands-on" approach to the food drive.

In addition to personally calling each of the local restaurants and grocery stores, he has spoken with the city planning director to get an update on the proposal for converting the now vacant factory building into a Big and Thrifty warehouse store. The controversial project has been sent back for redesign several times due to objections of the neighbors who are concerned about traffic, parking, and the loss of business to existing retail stores.

The mayor has pressed for action on the zoning approvals, and told the planning staff, "I think I can get a hundred or so turkeys from Big and Thrifty if we expedite the approval. They won't be open for Thanksgiving, but if we 'fast track' the process they might be able to cash in on the Christmas holidays."

When the regional manager for the chain was approached by the mayor and asked to donate 100 turkeys, he didn't think he had the option to say "no." In a memo to the president of the company, he wrote, "If we want to move ahead as fast as possible on converting the factory to a warehouse, it will cost us 100 turkeys. It's for a good cause, so I think we should do it, but I hope we don't get 'squeezed' like this in the future."

In his thank you note, the mayor said, "Your generous donation has earned you a special place in our community. I look forward to working with you in the future."

Discussion questions:

  • Should the mayor be making personal "asks" from local businesses?
  • Did the mayor do anything wrong in meeting with the planning staff?
  • Is there a downside if the new chain donates 100 turkeys to the food drive?

Judy Nadler is senior fellow in government ethics at the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics.

November 2012

Oct 22, 2015
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