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Markkula Center for Applied Ethics

What's In A Name?

Judy Nadler

The following case has been created for discussion purposes. We welcome your comments.

The city of Berkshire was proud of its tradition and history. For the residents of this suburb, one of the greatest sources of pride was the city government. The state league of cities had cited Berkshire as one of the top 10 in the category of best-run municipalities, and most of that credit went to Mayor William Simmons.

Owner of the largest insurance company in town, Mayor Simmons set the record for longest-serving mayor – 42 years in office. The council decided to honor him by naming the new boulevard leading to city hall “William Simmons Way” and to erect a large monument sign in the plaza citing his service and leadership.

Several local companies, including a restaurant, law office, title company, fitness center, and medical offices relocated to the new street.

Two years later, Simmons was sentenced to three years in federal prison for taking more than $500,000 in kickbacks in return for steering business to several contractors while he was mayor. He resigned in shame, asking forgiveness from the community and admitting his actions gave “a black eye” to Berkshire.

Rosemary Preston, the new mayor, suggested the sign be removed and the street renamed. There was an outcry from Mrs. Simmons, who said she had conducted a survey of residents and there was “overwhelming” support for keeping the sign and street name. “It’s just plain wrong to let this one blemish ruin an otherwise spotless career.”

The council also heard from individuals who said to honor the former mayor was in direct contradiction to the town’s ethics and values. One city hall employee spoke up saying, “I don’t want to see his name ‘glorified’ each day when I come to work.”

A more practical concern was expressed by the businesses on the street. The attorneys who had offices on William Simmons Way explained what it meant to change the name of the street. “We have to change our letterhead and business cards, notify all our clients, change our insurance policies, utilities – the list is endless. We don’t care if you take the sign down, but don’t make us go through the trouble and expense of changing the name of the street.”

Questions for discussion:

  • It is appropriate to name public streets or buildings for individuals who are still alive?
  • Would this be an issue if the crime were of a personal nature, and not one involving the conduct of the public’s business?
  • If the street is renamed, should the city be responsible for the costs incurred to the businesses?
  • What should the council do?
  • What would you do?
Nov 29, 2011
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