making local government more ethical
What do the BP oil spill and local government ethics have in common? Kenneth Feinberg.

This week, Feinberg was chosen to work out the BP oil spill claims, and today he is expected to be hired to work out the claims against Maricopa County, home of Phoenix, based on charges of harassment and abuse of power against sheriff Joe Arpaio and former county attorney Andrew Thomas, who is running for Arizona attorney general. According to an article posted yesterday on the ABA Journal website, suits have been filed against the county by judges, elected officials, managers, and employees, and up to 100 claims in all might be filed by the time the dust settles. However, there appears to be no sign of blocking the principal well that has produced all this harassment, the county sheriff.

According to an article in yesterday's New York Times, it is coming out that more teachers and school administrators have been involved in cheating on the test scores that may not only give them bonuses, but may determine whether their schools continue to exist. One can argue ad infinitum about the pressures, temptations, and morals involved. But one thing is certain: the problems were not created by the teachers and administrators.

The government cheating on pension funds, according to today's New York Times, is very different. New York State elected officials have tentatively agreed to allow the state and its municipalities, with the exception of New York City, to borrow from the state pension fund (which also covers municipalities) in order to make payments into the fund.

I am conducting a national research study on government ethics programs with a focus on training. This research is being done in connection with the Ethics Center of the University of North Florida. Cities across the U.S. are being studied as to their ethics program structure, training requirements and training methods.

Misinformation is rampant in local government ethics. And the less people understand it, the easier it is for the misinformation to be taken at face value.

According to an article in yesterday's Dispatch, in Columbus, a city of 24,000 in eastern Mississippi, one council member's response to a fist fight between the mayor and another council member was to propose an ethics code so that officials would treat each other and the public with respect.

Last September, I wrote a blog post about an ethics initiative in Palm Beach County, Florida. A response to numerous scandals, it featured an ethics pledge, primarily for government officials, and a successful attempt to get an independent ethics commission and inspector general for the county government. I felt that the business leaders in Palm Beach County who led the initiative had a good understanding of government ethics, and took a fresh, effective approach.

I cannot say the same thing about a copycat initiative in Luzerne County, Pennsylvania, the home of Wilkes-Barre and Scranton, called Ethics Awareness. Its ethics initiative, led by a business group and an ethics institute at Misericordia University, is also a response to numerous scandals (see my blog post on the most infamous one), but it lacks the focus of the Palm Beach initiative.

It would be easy to say that politics is a team sport, like football, while ethics is an individual sport, like tennis. But this simply isn't true. Both ethical behavior and unethical behavior can be done as a team.

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