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Markkula Center for Applied Ethics

The Council Member and the Manager

Judy Nadler

During his hard-fought campaign for city council, Charlie Pierce made both friends and enemies. Running on a reform platform, he attacked the record of incumbent Peter Carmichael, linking him to "runaway costs" for the construction of the city convention center, and accusing him of supporting "sweetheart deals" with the police and fire unions.

Alarmed at press coverage of the race and concerned with factual errors in what she read in his campaign literature, City Manager Kathleen Grant took an unprecedented step and contacted the local paper. "It has come to my attention that what the public is hearing about the convention center project is not accurate," she told the editorial board. "While as the city manager I cannot and will not become involved in council campaigns, I have an obligation to correct the record. It is in the public's best interest to know the facts."

An ensuring editorial was critical of Pierce, accusing him of "reckless disregard of the facts" and suggesting he "do his homework" before the next candidates' forum. The stinging criticism left him even more determined to win the race. One of his first orders of business, he said, would be to look more closely at the performance of the city manager.

After winning the council seat, Pierce did his best to smooth over damaged relationships with his new colleagues. It wasn't easy, as three had endorsed Carmichael, and they felt the campaign criticism was indirectly focused on them. Pierce's interactions with the city manager were awkward, but he was determined to honor their professional relationship and make the best of it.

Two weeks into the city's employee negotiations, word leaked out about the city's position on the proposed Memorandum of Understanding with the police and fire unions, and, as the newcomer, Pierce was suspected of being the leader. In fact, Pierce had not spoken to anyone outside the session but was told by the union president that he had heard details from former councilman Carmichael.

Pierce reported the breech immediately to the city manager, suggesting she contact the city attorney and Carmichael, and make some effort to control the damage. He was stunned by her response: "This is a political hot potato, and I cannot become involved in this ongoing dispute you have with Peter."

Given this latest incident, in addition to his earlier conflict with Kathleen Grant, Charlie Pierce began wondering how he could honestly and ethically participate in her upcoming performance evaluation.

Can Pierce give Carmichael a fair review?

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.

July 2006

Jul 1, 2006
Government Ethics Stories