making local government more ethical
In an article in the New York Times this Monday, the Robeson County (NC) district attorney described his predecessor's bullying ways, which are typical of those of an individual who heads a local fiefdom:
“He is a bully, and that’s the way he ran this office. People were afraid of him. Lawyers were afraid of him. They were intimidated by his tactics."
Nepotism is a difficult topic to get a hold of. It is the most generally accepted kind of ethical misconduct, most governments do not keep records (or, at least, public records) of familial relationships, and nepotism provisions are rarely enforced. For all of these reasons, the news media do not give nepotism much coverage. So in many governments, especially those with poor ethics environments, nepotism is common.

Kudos go to David Wickert of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution for doing an investigative piece last weekend about nepotism in the metropolitan Atlanta area (Disclosure: I was interviewed for the article, and I am quoted in it).

Wickert writes, "In the last three years alone, five area city and county governments hired at least 770 relatives of current employees. Those hires took place as thousands of metro residents struggled to find work, raising questions about whether family ties trump good government."

There is nothing more natural and, in most circumstances, ethical than a mother doing her best to help her son when he is in trouble. And yet, in most jurisdictions, there are multiple government ethics laws that prohibit this very conduct when the mother is a government official. This is as good an example as there is of the fact that government ethics is not about ethical conduct in general, but rather about government fiduciaries dealing responsibly with their conflicts of interest.

According to an article in the Eagle Tribune last week, a hearing was held by the Massachusetts ethics commission regarding a complaint against a member of the Groveland, MA board of selectmen (its governing body). She was alleged to have used her position to try to help her son, a Groveland police officer who had been placed on administrative leave.

According to the EC's press release, this otherwise commendable conduct might have violated four different ethics provisions:

Laura Hartman and Crina Archer's essay "False Beliefs, Partial Truths: Personal Myths and Ethical Blind Spots" (January 2012) provides a valuable new view on how our blind spots hamper our handling of ethical matters.

Double Blindness
Their first valuable observation is that, "[i]f left uninterrogated or concealed, ethical blind spots operate as perceptual distortions, encouraging us to believe that we have a full view of our situation when, in fact, our perception ... is partial and incomplete." Thus, "ethical blind spots make us doubly blind; we not only fail to perceive the ethical dimension of problems and situations, but we remain unaware of this failure."

It's as if we walked across intersections without realizing we were colorblind and, therefore, failing to note the position of the lights (my image, not the authors'). Most of the time, we will make it across the street unharmed, but (1) we will cause harm to cars and bicycles that have to slam on their breaks or veer around us, and (2) we will eventually be hurt. Only colorblind individuals who acknowledge that they do not have a complete view of their situation and, therefore, note the position of the lights will not do harm to others or themselves. Otherwise, they are doubly blind, and dangerous.

According to an article this week in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, the new mayor of Poplar Bluff, MO is a gadfly who had been totally ignored when she questioned the dealings of her town government. This is generally a sign of a very poor ethics environment.

One of the problems she wants to deal with is the town manager's paid position on the board of a local bank. The manager's fellow bank board members consist of a "group of business leaders who also have their hands in much of the city business," in other words, restricted sources. Not only do these business people do business with the town government, but the bank does, as well (in a small town, most or even all banks do business with the government).

Reading in The Economist a distinction made by Paul Kingsnorth, a leader of the uncivilization movement, a response to climate change, made me wonder whether it is also important with respect to government ethics. His distinction is between a "problem" and a "predicament." A "problem" is something that can be solved. A "predicament" is something that must be endured, for which there is no real solution. When faced with a predicament, the appropriate response is not to try to solve it, but rather to accept it and feel grief for what is lost because of it.

Government ethics programs are intended to prevent and enforce against the misuse of public office for personal benefit. But is the use of public office for personal benefit a "problem" or a "predicament"? Can it be prevented, or is it just the way people are, or the way people who get into politics are, or the way people are who obtain public office and give in to the opportunities presented by power and the pressures of their colleagues, friends, business associates, and family members? Is this something we must endure or something that can be changed?