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Markkula Center for Applied Ethics

When Doing Good May Be Doing Wrong

Miriam Schulman

A recent meeting of the Ethics Roundtable for Locally Elected Officials looked at four scenarios that illustrate potential conflicts between an official's role in government and his or her role in the non-profit sector:

1) The mayor’s daughter competes in one of the two local gymnastics clubs in town. Her club is hosting a state meet in April; the other club is hosting a regional event in July. Both organizations have asked the city for a grant to defray costs. There is a limited amount of money in the community service budget, and traditionally the council funds only one sport, and usually chooses an event with the greatest number of attendees, which would be the regional event.

  • Should the mayor recuse himself from the discussion/vote on the funding?
  • How should he vote on the grant request?

 2) Councilmember Moray is a volunteer for the Little League, serving as treasurer. She deposits all funds for the team and endorses checks and pays local vendors. Sponsorships are down, sales at the Snack Shack are slow, and the Little League plans to ask the city to waive the fee for use of the field. The board has asked her, as treasurer, to bring this request before the city council.

  •  Should she resign her position? Recuse herself from the discussion?
  • How should the council respond to other sports teams who make a similar request?

3) The city manager’s wife is a board member of the local historical society. She serves as a volunteer, but is compensated for her expenses when she travels to conferences. The National Preservation Society meeting was held in Washington, D.C. and she was selected to represent the historical society. Although this type of trip is generally not covered by the city, the mayor makes a motion to approve the expense report anyway.

  • Is there a problem with the city paying her expenses?
  • Should the city manager attend the National League of Cities meeting being held in Washington at the same time and submit his expenses incorporating hers?

 4) The vice mayor is a founding board member of the local Habitat for Humanity. When an affordable housing project is proposed, four organizations apply to build the project: Homes for the Homeless, Emergency Housing Coalition, Start-Up Housing, and Habitat for Humanity.

  •  Should the vice mayor recuse himself from the discussion and vote?
  • Will the city council look more favorably on Habitat for Humanity because of his role on the board?
Aug 20, 2009
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