making local government more ethical
An Active EC Is a Good Thing
Local officials often say that because there are no complaints to or advisory opinions by their ethics commissions, their town or city government does not have ethics problems. Actually, it's the other way around. Local governments with active ethics commissions, especially dealing with advisory opinions, are more likely to have healthy ethical environments. It shows that people trust the ethics commission, it shows that people are thinking about ethics issues, and it supplies ongoing instruction to officials and employees in the various issues dealt with, assuming that there is transparency in the ethics process.

In fact, the less transparency, the less trust, and the less use of the ethics commission. It becomes a vicious circle that might appear like a lack of ethics problems, but is more likely to reflect a poor ethical environment.

Those who, like me, are fascinated by Vernon, California, the ultimate company town, with an ethical environment that breaks nearly all the rules, will be happy to know that it was given a long treatment in a front-page article in Sunday's Los Angeles Times. There are no new revelations, but a few good quotes.

From state Assemblyman Hector De La Torre:  "It's like they said of Mexico — it's the perfect dictatorship because they have elections. Vernon is the perfect corporation because it pretends to be a city."

Using government employees for private purposes is one of the most common ethics code violations.

This violation is especially bad because it involves coercion of individuals, in this case subordinates who are not in a position to say no. Coercion and intimidation rarely occur outside of a poor ethical environment.

This violation also shows a serious failure to recognize the boundary between public and private, which is the heart of government ethics.

And three, this violation is usually the tip of an iceberg. When it comes out, and the government or a local newspaper delves further into the official's conduct, a lot more usually comes out, for the very reason that the violator has a serious problem with boundaries.

In order to develop their identities, and cement the loyalties of their members, organizations tend to contrast themselves with other organizations, and with those they deal with, whether they are clients, customers, or citizens. Bailey wrote, “If contact with outsiders is experienced as painful and involves rejection, organizational solidarity is likely to be enhanced." In other words, in the local government context, seeing citizens as irritants creates solidarity.

One of the problems in talking about conflicts of interest is that we tend to assume that people with conflicts analyze their situations before acting. We think that, for example, they balance acting in their personal interest, or in the interest of a family member or business associate, against the consequences of getting caught. Or we think that the principal ethical considerations they bring to bear on their situation arise from their local code of ethics or their spiritual or philosophical beliefs.

Bailey has a word for putting the organization ahead of the individual:  holism (as opposed to individualism). What complicates this concept in government is that there are two wholes, the organization itself and the community it works for. One of the things that most determines a local government's ethical environment is which of the two wholes an official or employee is most supposed to put above his or her personal interest.