making local government more ethical

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Times are changing for the better in NW Indiana

Published Winter 2005/2006

Times are Changing for the Better in our Region

Education, and strong stands against corruption, must continue if the area is to foster economic development

By Edward Charbonneau

Executive Director, Northwest Indiana Local Government Academy

Published in BusINess

This article was published in the NW Indiana Local Government Academy Newsletter.


Northwest Indiana is undergoing a major metamorphosis, one that is transforming not only the character of the region but maybe just as importantly, the perceptions of our area by outsiders.  Brought about in no small part by a culture change, it's affecting the way business is conducted in our area.  The future appears brighter than it has in years.  Finally, we are able to think in positive terms about what lies ahead.  Maybe the most important change is taking place within each of us as we begin to elevate our own expectations.


Certainly the educational system is playing a large part in our transformation.  Leadership of the region's six colleges and universities are at the forefront of efforts to change the quality of life for everyone.  Their leadership was a major factor in the formation of what was to become the Northwest Indiana Quality of Life Council as well as the Northwest Indiana Local Government Academy.  It is this connection to and involvement with the community that has resulted in an educational system that is doing a better job of preparing students to meet the employment needs created by today's global economy.


The culture change I see taking place has its roots in some weeding and seeding that began several years ago.


A long history of unprincipled behavior on the part of some elected and appointed officials had unfortunately tainted every elected official in the region.  The perception that all elected officials were corrupt was affecting the quality of life for everyone.  It was a major impediment to economic development efforts.  The community at large eventually reached a point where change was demanded. 


Joe VanBokkelen, United States Attorney for the Northern District of Indiana, started weeding.  He emphasized repeatedly the point that public corruption was a plague that was infecting all that it touched.  It was not only corrupting those involved, but it had corrupted the system of government that had permitted it to survive.  It had corrupted the area where it existed, and had tainted the view of those outside of our area.  Some thirty convictions or plea agreements later, the message is getting out that Northwest Indiana will no longer tolerate business as usual.


The seeding started over two years ago, as the Northwest Indiana Local Government Academy began to emphasize the importance of sound ethical practices and ethics ordinances in local units of government.  The seeding has taken hold.  Numerous local units of government from Whiting to Porter Township to LaPorte have stepped forward and endorsed sound ethical practices.  Ethics activities in Northwest Indiana began to make statewide news in a positive way.  Northwest Indiana has become a leader in reforming local government.


It is unreasonable to expect that simply adopting ethics ordinances will bring about the changes necessary to move Northwest Indiana out of the past and in to the future.  While it may be possible for ethics ordinances to get individuals to act ethically, the change we are looking for will only come about when we change the way we think.  Ethics codes alone won't make people honest.  We start by changing behavior; changing attitudes will take a little longer.


At the same time, we shouldn't let ourselves believe that government has exclusive rights to unethical behavior.  The mere mention of the word "Enron" evokes all kinds of emotions way beyond the business community.  Unfortunately Enron isn't a singular incident.  Far too often we read about corporate leaders making the decision that money is more important than personal integrity.  The reaction on the part of congress in dealing with the aftermath of ethical indiscretions has created numerous changes in the way business is conducted and the accountability of corporate managers and boards of directors.


As our educational system works to prepare students for jobs, it needs to focus some of its attention on character development.  It won't happen on its own.  President Theodore Roosevelt once said, "To educate a person in the mind but not the morals is to educate a menace to society."  We need to make sure we spend time developing character and personal integrity along with competence.


Last year I had the opportunity to attend a two-day session on ethics.  The conference leader, Michael Josephson, a world renowned expert on the subject, spent considerable time discussing the importance of establishing an ethical culture; for an individual, a family, a business, or a community.


As we review the manner in which we educate individuals for entry in to the job market, it is important we look beyond math, reading, and problem solving.  In today's environment character is a key leadership competence.  Character without competence will lead to bankruptcy.  Competence without character will lead to disgrace.


In the words of Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, "We pay a price when we deprive children of the exposure to the values, principles and education they need to make them good citizens." 


In recent years the property tax crisis has brought a lot of attention to the "value" of homes in Northwest Indiana.  The time has come for us to begin paying more attention to the "values" of our communities.