making local government more ethical

Dealing with Placeholders on Boards and Commissions

A "placeholder" is someone who agrees to run on a ticket with a mayoral candidate or be appointed by him, but has no interest or intention in actually doing the work required by the position. Such a candidate does not attend many meetings of the body to which she was elected (often she is not even in town much of the year) and, when she does attend, is usually not prepared. When her support is needed, she will sometimes read a short speech prepared for her by someone else.

One placeholder here or there is not too big a problem, but multiple placeholders on the same body can (1) lead to quorum problems, and (2) create the appearance that elected officials are simply rubber stamps for the mayor, and that real candidates, with their own opinions, need not apply, because one or both of the parties don't want them. This is demoralizing. Not only do citizens with opinions feel their service is not wanted by government. But when such citizens go to a public meeting, they find that, if they disagree with the ruling party's policy, there is no one from the ruling party who is listening and will openly discuss the issue. Instead, board members support moving to a vote as soon as possible, always, always, always voting the same as each other.

Is this a government ethics issue? I think it is. It involves a confusion of person and office. An official misuses his office if he continuously puts his personal obligations ahead of his public obligation to fulfill the duties of the office. It is only one's office to the extent one actively and responsibly does the work. If one does not or cannot, then one has to relinquish the office.

If the placeholder was an employee, the employee's supervisor would discipline him, unless, of course, the supervisor was told to look the other way. An elected or appointed official should be held to standards, as well, or be disciplined. But who is, effectively, an official's supervisor? His appointing authority or head of the party ticket? He will hardly be seen as unbiased. The chair of the body on which he sits? She, too, will be seen as biased, one way or the other? It's hard for the body itself to do the disciplining. This puts members in the uncomfortable position (1) of disciplining a colleague, (2) of turning what is usually considered a personal problem (the refusal to do one's job) into a partisan issue, and (3) of going against one party colleagues by disciplining, and perhaps even voting out, a member of one's party? No one should be put in this position, but this is what is ordinarily done. Or not done, because rarely is anyone removed from a board or commission for failure to prepare for meetings and failure to come to a large percentage of meetings.

Much better is an independent body, such as an independent ethics commission. This takes the appearance of bias, the politicization, and the discomfort out of the process.

The problem is less whether this is a government ethics issue. The problem is how to prove that someone is a placeholder. There could be a hard-and-fast rule about attending meetings, but this rule could be upheld by the body or its chair (if any complaint had to be dealt with), with the ethics commission involved only if the supposed placeholder chose to seek a waiver.

But what about the member who attends a sufficient percentage of meetings, but does not participate in deliberations, shows no sign of being prepared, and votes automatically? How can a rule be written to cover conduct when it involves primarily a lack of conduct?

What an ethics commission could do is deal with this problem when it goes beyond one person here, another person there, that is, when it is a pattern, a manifestation of the government's ethics environment, a form of institutional corruption. If this is the case, the ethics commission could hold one or more public hearings on the subject, inviting officials who have been accused of being placeholders, as well as their bodies' chairs, appointing authorities, the head of their ticket, and interested citizens.

Simply talking about this topic out in the open might lead to important changes. Some placeholders may be shamed either into resigning or into taking their places more seriously. Appointing authorities and party leaders may feel obliged to seek out more independent individuals who will actually fulfill their duties. And chairs may come to expect more from members, asking them for their opinions and, if they do not seem to be prepared, asking that they be prepared for the next meeting. Ignoring those who are unprepared and stay silent could be replaced by the expectation of preparation and discussion.

It is important for ethics commissions to remember that they can deal with important issues even when they have no enforcement authority with respect to them. Just raising issues can sometimes do as much as enforcing against them.

This post was inspired by an editorial in today's New Haven Register, which talks about the damaging effect of placeholders on a local town's school board. Also see my 2010 post "Why It Is Important to Ensure That Legislators Show Up to Work."

Robert Wechsler
Director of Research, City Ethics