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Cynicism About Ethics Training
Wednesday, January 24th, 2007
One of the most serious obstacles to ethics training is cynicism. For example, a councilman in South Lake Tahoe, California said, according to a recent article in the Tahoe Daily Tribune, that the California requirement of ethics training for all municipal officials is an indication of a breakdown in trust in local government and "It's not going to change behavior. [It] creates a job for someone."
This councilman is not anti-ethics. In fact, ethics reform was central to the platform he ran on successfully in 2006. But he feels that things are so bad, more than education is needed.
A lot of ethics training is just for show. The training he was to get was two hours in person, run by the Institute for Local Government. This doesn't sound like enough, but is far better than the quickie computer course required in Illinois.
Instead of attacking the idea of ethics training, officials could ask for more training and for ongoing discussions, both in class form and at board and commission meetings. Nothing is better than having an intelligent, civil discussion about a concrete conflict of interest when it arises. Even if everything is going according to law, it can be valuable to highlight what is happening so that board members and the public understand what is right and they will be more likely to responsibly handle future instances where there is disagreement among the members.
In too many cases, ethics is left to the city or town attorney to decide, and this official is neither trained in government ethics nor neutral in his or her political or personal loyalties.
When a situation goes to an ethics commission, it is often discussed behind closed doors, so that there is no educational effect. An ethics commission can use the occasion of its decision -- a discussion in the decision, a press conference, a public talk or discussion, whatever -- to help educate officials, employees, and the public alike.
Cynicism by those favoring government ethics goes nowhere. Asking for more education can make a difference.
Director of Research, City Ethics