making local government more ethical

The Responsibilities of a Local Government Official's Spouse

Ethics codes do not generally have rules about the involvement of spouses of government officials in citizen groups. But this can create serious appearance problems, as it has in St. Charles, Illinois, an hour west of Chicago, according to an article in yesterday's Chicago Tribune.

The wife of a St. Charles school board member is an officer for a group set up to promote a $114 million school building referendum measure that is not only in the town, but in the school board member's district. I'd like to take a critical look at what various people have said about this situation.

The school board member sees no conflict of interest. He said, "My wife is doing that as a citizen of the community. I never made her do it. She chose to help and be a part of it. That's something that she believes in."

The school board president took basically the same view, with a mildly feminist twist: "It doesn't make a difference to me, because she is a public citizen and has a right to her opinions and political actions. To be held back because of her husband's position isn't appropriate."

A member of the group opposing the referendum said that it undermined his confidence in the referendum process. "It creates a level of discomfort and brings into question the objectivity of the board." Note that his view says nothing of the wife, but turns the issue toward the husband.

The acting director of the Better Government Association is quoted as saying that the wife's involvement "creates the appearance of a problem." He thinks it is up to the community to decide. But he doesn't say how. The community can't do anything about the wife, only about the husband.

There are two problems intertwined here. One is the definition of a conflict of interest. The other is how to enforce a conflict when it is not the government official who has the conflict, but a family member.

The husband shows a lack of understanding of what a conflict is. Conflicts do not involve a person's motives, but rather appearances and pressures on their objectivity.

Appearances first. The wife is wearing two hats: the hat of school board member's spouse and the hat of officer of a group pushing a school building in her husband's district. To someone who opposes the referendum, it looks as if the husband is pushing for it through his wife, no matter how independent she might actually be. The appearance is of government officials manipulating public opinion indirectly.

To consider personal pressures, let's hypothesize that the husband is privately against the referendum. By becoming such a public proponent of the referendum, the wife has made it difficult for the husband to come out publicly against it, thereby rejecting his wife's strongly held views before the entire community. Should someone be faced with this pressure?

This kind of conflict is difficult to enforce. Should the husband be forced to recuse himself? This would take off the pressure and bring more trust to the school board, but the conflict did not originate with him, so it will seem unfair to many people to require anything of the husband. And yet the husband can take the high road and choose to recuse himself, even if no rule or authority says he must.

But what if the school board doesn't vote, or if the vote occurred before the group was formed. The husband can do nothing but suggest privately that his wife not become so involved with this particular issue. But as the husband and school board president said, it is up to her, even though she is not a government official. But what's up to her is not just the right to voice her opinions, but the responsibility to preserve trust in government by not creating a conflict for her husband.

Is this responsibility to one's community not every bit as much the role of a citizen as the right of free speech?

Robert Wechsler
Director of Research, City Ethics