When an Emotional Wrench Is Thrown into an Ethical Issue, What Do You Do?
I would like to hear how many people have had similar experiences to the one I will describe below, and what people think should be done in response. It concerns conflicts of interest, and the way a discussion of them within the context of a particular possible instance can so easily be turned into a personal, emotional issue, undermining the public's view of the importance of dealing with conflicts.
At a meeting of my own town's executive board in Connecticut (our legislature is a Town Meeting; olde New England), the subject of conflicts of interest came up in the context of a politically active person being nominated for appointment to the Board of Ethics. This person holds no office, and never has, but he is an adviser to the losing candidate for First Selectman (effectively, the mayor). Another Selectman pointed out this political activity and effectively said there might be a conflict of interest.
Later, I mentioned this and said that I agreed that the appointee might have to recuse himself, certainly if the candidate (who is also on the executive board) were to come before the Board of Ethics. I said that, similarly, there were potential conflicts between the obligations of a particular department head and the obligations of the role he had recently been elected to: chair of the Republican Town Committee (mine is a very partisan town).
The department head took this as an attack on his character, and went on the attack himself. I responded with an explanation of the difference between holding roles with obligations that might conflict, or be seen as conflicting, and the individual holding those roles being a bad person. Basically, I gave a primer on the concept of conflict of interest. The department head continued to insist that I had made a personal attack on him, and another department head joined in his "defense". The audience was riled up, the First Selectman defended without question the principal topic of my original statement (concerning the Town Attorney letting his representation of other clients get in the way of his representation of the town), and the concept of conflict of interest went out the window.
My guess is that the department heads, the First Selectman, and the Town Attorney perfectly well understood that I was casting no aspersions against the department head's character, and that they were just trying to quash any talk of conflicts of interest (which are rampant) and seem in the right (with me pegged as defamatory scoundrel).
But all the same, the audience was clearly taken in by their turning an ethical issue into a personal, emotional issue that everyone could understand (while conflicts of interest take a bit of thought and tend to be emotional only when someone's on the take). On a citywide level, the same sort of thing is done when a city's leaders respond to a call for an ethics code with the insistence that they are upstanding citizens and that such a proposal is defamatory.
How does one respond to such effective ploys (or beliefs, when the people making these statements do actually believe what they say)? Especially if you are one of the people who brought up the issue or proposed the code (and it is rare to find others who will step into the battlefield on what appears to be the losing, mean-spirited, you-started-it side).