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.