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Declaration of Policy, Purpose, and Obligations

This is the place to comment on, discuss, and share alternative content and language relating to the declarations of policy that can usually be found at the beginnning of municipal ethics codes. Most declarations are very short and often ignored, since they cannot be enforced. But they are important in showing the community why ethical conduct is more important than just being good and fair. And the forumulation of such a declaration, and the discussion of its language, can be important occasions for looking at a community's ethical aspirations and the sort of ethical environment it desires.

Please share your experiences with the formulation and value of declarations of policy, including best practices as well as problems. Also see "Aspirational Codes" for a related discussion.

Declaration of Policy, Purpose, and Obligations

The proper operation of our city's government requires that public officials and employees act as public servants: courteous, impartial, honest, open, and responsible to the city's residents; that they act as fiduciaries entrusted with and responsible for the property and resources of the community; that they make governmental decisions and policies in the proper channels of the government structure, free of coercive or other improper influence; and that they use their office and employment in the best interests of the city rather than for personal interests, whether their own interests or those of their family, friends, or business and political associates.

It is central to gaining and retaining the public's trust in our city's government that public servants seek to avoid even the appearance of impropriety. Fulfilling one's role as public servant sometimes means sacrificing rather than gaining opportunities.

This code focuses on conflicts of interest, which affect the decisions of government officials and employees in ways that are unfair both to the community and to individuals and entities who lack special relationships with our city's officials. When public servants make decisions that are not or do not appear to be impartial, this seriously undermines public confidence in government.

While the vast majority of municipal officials are well-meaning, being well-meaning is not enough. It is important that officials understand the conflicts they confront every day, appreciate their fiduciary obligations to city residents, and recognize the importance of preventing conflicts from occurring, disclosing conflicts when they arise, and withdrawing from any involvement in a matter where they have a conflict (recusing themselves).

Nothing is more important to public trust than having public servants err on the side of disclosing every possible conflict and recusing themselves even where they feel certain they can act impartially.

The purposes of this ethics code are:

(a) To establish standards of ethical conduct - especially those dealing with conflicts between personal interests and those of the city - for city officials, employees, consultants,* candidates, and those who do business with the city;

(b) To provide clear guidance with respect to such standards by clarifying which acts are allowed and which are not;

(c) To promote public confidence in the integrity of our city's governance and administration;

(d) To provide for the consideration of potential ethical problems before they arise, to minimize unwarranted suspicion and to enhance the accountability of our city's government to city residents; and

(e) To provide for the fair and effective administration and enforcement of this code.

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Robert Wechsler says:

Portland, CT's new ethics code has a long Declaration of Policy section, with one especially valuable and unusual subsection.

The section begins with a subsection that is farily typical, discussing trust and openness. This is followed by a very short subsection about abiding by laws and acting with integrity.

is the most interesting addition. It recognizes some basic facts that underlie conflicts of interest, but are usually unstated and often ignored.

(c) The Town of Portland recognizes that:

(1) Town representatives are also members of the community, sharing similar personal and economic interests as all members of the community; and

(2) Town representatives retain their rights to express their views on matters of general public interest, and to express their opinions on the effect of public actions on their personal and economic interests or rights; and

(3) standards of ethical conduct that distinguish between minor and inconsequential conflicts, unavoidable in a free society, and those that are personal, material and avoidable, are sound public policy; and

(4) Town representatives are entitled to engage in employment, professional or business activities, other than official duties, in order to support themselves and their families and to maintain a continuity of professional or business activity, and are entitled to maintain investments, none of which impede or undermine the integrity of their service to the Town.

These facts are important to recognize, because too often it is assumed that conflicts of interest are bad, rather than common situations that have to be dealt with responsibly.  Recognizing that town officials are like the rest of us, with their own interests, views and jobs, makes it easier for citizens to be understanding about officials' conflicts and for officials to readily admit to their conflicts, which is the first step toward dealing with them responsibly (that is, toward the individual with the conflict, other officials, the press, and the public dealing with them responsibly).

It is equally important to distinguish between minor and important conflicts.  Too often, minor conflicts are used as political weapons, making it look as if conflicts are of little meaning, nothing but political footballs. Minor conflicts also waste the time of ethics commissions.

I believe that some version of this subsection should appear in every ethics code, and I will soon be adding a version of it to this Model Code.

Robert Wechsler
Director of Research-Retired, City Ethics
[email protected]