Ethics? Transparency? Or just morality?


Those of us in public life accept that we may be the targets of anger or unearned praise. The appearance of personal power includes the appearance of personal corruption. Recently some people I know have been talking again about ethics in local government. Sometimes the suggestion is that local elected or employed people benefit directly from governmental decisions. Sometimes the issue is that a staff member or elected official seems high-handed, arrogant, or very judgmental. And what does it mean if an elected official accepts a cup of coffee from a constituent – or a lobbyist? What if an elected official accepts dinner from another governmental entity? Or a staff member gossips about an elected official using email – public or private? Which of these behaviors violates some ethical construct?

Several years ago the City Council in Ann Arbor attempted to come up with a code of ethical conduct. The code quickly devolved into a series of ‘thou and thy family shalt not’ statements about benefiting financially from decisions and relationships. And since that didn’t meet the needs initially identified, it’s never gone anywhere. Legislating personal behavior is a difficult thing.

The Mayor of Union Township, New Jersey wrote an article for the New Jersey League of Municipalities about ethics in which he said that “The three types of misconduct most frequently observed by employees in local government are: abusive behavior (26%); putting one’s own interests ahead of that of the organization (conflicts of interest – 26%); and internet abuse (23%). Other ethical conduct observations include: using competitor’s inside information, bribes, misuse of confidential information, alteration of financial documents, alteration of documents, stealing, misreporting of hours worked and improper hiring practices.”

The Michigan State Attorney General has a set of forms on ethics ordinance language and conflict of interest disclosure. These focus on a staff member or elected official benefiting directly or indirectly from their government position – other than being paid, of course.

But there are other communities that are trying to address public behavior – encouraging it to be polite, responsible, and accountable.

I read the Watsonville, CA code of ethics and values, but found that it was neither precise enough to make me happy nor clear enough in determining the difference between an ethical act and a social value.

I rather liked the City of Santa Ana’s code of ethics and conduct. At least the conduct was separated from values – and we may not all agree on values, but we can understand conduct. (The Institute for Local Government in California had a good overview of ethics codes, although not all the links are working.)

As I see it, these codes of ethics provide guidance for some types of public and private behavior. Private behavior – using the government’s computer for one’s own activities, taking advantage of one’s governmental position for personal gain or for a relative’s personal gain – these are clear violations of our current employee code. But the values – treating the public with respect, treating colleagues with respect in public settings even when disagreeing with them – we don’t have a resolution that guides that type of behavior.

There’s another aspect of ethical behavior that is clear – but seems to be something that some folks try to skirt. That’s governmental transparency. Sure, we can get bogged down in whether transparency means that every decision is discussed in public, or whether it means that all documents that help form decisions are made available to the public, or whether any barriers are placed in the way of the public having input into decision making. But I think that transparency means making certain, as much as possible, that government acts in the clear light of public scrutiny.

Maybe we need to look at whether all meetings are clearly posted and easily accessible. Perhaps we need to revise policies about making the public pay for documents and document searches. Possibly we need to review the policies about public comment and public hearings.

Each one of us can behave in public in ways that embarrass us or make us look bad. (I think of speeding tickets, rolling through a stop sign, dropping trash on the street, finding a $20 on the floor at a store and not turning it in . . . ) And each of us can behave in private as if no one is looking. But the government is supposed to behave as if it works for us – and that means, to me, that there’s no hint that the local officials have created an atmosphere that makes doing the public’s business an afterthought.

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2 Responses to Ethics? Transparency? Or just morality?

  1. John Floyd says:

    I’m not sure that there is ever any legitimate case for more-than-temporary secrecy in city government. The national government’s general justification for secrecy is “National security”. Whether or not this excuse is also used to cover up mere “Career security” issues, secrecy has no place in local government, period. When contemporaneous disclosure disadvantages civic benefit (vs. office-holder benefit), as with certain real estate, personnel, or legal situations, it can make sense to postpone disclosure until a more discrete time (e.g. after a purchase is closed); when the relevant transaction is competed, I have not yet hear of a legitimate reason for denying the public any information at all. All documents/notes/minutes should be available to the public. To me, this is the nub of transparency.

    All this not withstanding, my experience is that the bigger issue with this unit of our government (City of Ann Arbor) is the absence of respect for the public by its officials. The “high-handed, arrogant, or very judgmental” appearance of Ann Arbor officials generally, de-legitimizes city government, generally. This is the long-term threat to democracy: the de-legitimization of public institutions caused by the (apparent) contempt of city officials towards people who may be less articulate, less connected, less “cool”, or who simply think that their pubic policy is just plain wrong. The absence of compromise on controversial issues (“tyranny of the ‘majority'”) is one of the big hallmarks of apparent contempt; use of computers and other distractions during public hearings and comments is another; the ultimate irrelevance of public hearings to issue outcomes is a third. This apparent contempt will, in the end, merely de-legitimize government’s actions. The Turks are not some alien species, different from us.

    • sbriere says:

      There are so many layers to this issue. This week I’ll embrace Lincoln: with charity toward all, and malice toward none.

      I spoke with a resident today who thought the City should condemn some land in order to expand the right of way. He seemed surprised that I would be troubled by that; in his mind, good public policy outranked private property rights.

      I think there are others in our community who might share that philosophy. They see a clear public benefit, and believe those who don’t share the vision should . . .move over, I guess. If they are in a position of authority, I suspect one might interpret their statements and actions as contemptuous of public opinion. I think they, in turn, could point out the many small and significant occasions when public opinion was just . . . Wrong.

      And public opinion can be wrong. While a crowd of folks might know enough, collectively, to tell me how to change my oil, that same crowd could give me directions on making bread that didn’t result in an edible loaf. It depends both upon the knowledge of the individual members of the crowd and the individual abilities of those with the most correct knowledge to assert themselves. (Note how carefully I’ve avoided the inevitable moral/legal quandaries that change as society changes and pat me on the back.)

      Each elected or appointed or hired person in our City government has subtly or significantly different views about personal autonomy and collective civic knowledge. And I haven’t spoken with one who doesn’t respect community values or citizen input. It seems to be sometimes more personal than that – the messenger becomes the unwelcome message. Other times, it just takes some awareness to turn a situation around; I’ve seen serious learning at the staff level regarding public relations / input / participation.

      The easy thing would be to have us all pretending to find other people’s opinions and views equally valuable. Of course, it would be pretense; I never valued my eldest brother’s views on human relations, finding him alternatively aggressively hostile toward (name a minority) or aggressively angry at others’ rejection of minorities. I suspect each of us has in her life folks who offer their (to us, if not to the world) useless opinions.

      Since that seems a reasonable expectation – that we are all human, and that we may sometimes be rude or boorish or contemptuous – the solution isn’t to try to change the individuals but to address the institutions at support boorish behavior in ‘leaders’. (It isn’t that I believe individuals cannot change, but that, like a light bulb, they have to want to change. And I am no longer confident that I can determine that a new person in that role will be better, just that they will be different.)

      For some, compromise is a bad word. They think others should agree with them, and brook no dissent. As you look at the behavior of elected officials, maybe you should examine at in isolation of their political views. Someone whose views match yours, but who is contemptuous of those who disagree is no less in civil than someone who disagrees with you, and has no willingness to find compromise.

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