Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Ethics Made Simple

Our own Ethics board's guide (or one of them) along this mission of re-crafting Pittsburgh ethics laws has been Carla Miller, former Federal prosecutor and founder of the non-profit organization City Ethics.

Robert Wechsler is City Ethics' Research Director. He writes the blog, and maintains the City Ethics Model Ethics Code Project which includes an annotated version of a "model" municipal ethics code.

After bulleting four "essential elements" to all good municipal ethics codes in the Forward to the model code, our authors identify a fifth:

The other essential element of an effective ethics code is that it be the center of an ethical environment. Rarely is the passage of an ethics code the result of an ethics environment. More commonly, it is a response to a scandal or series of scandals in an environment where unethical behavior has been accepted, up to a point.

Boy, howdy!

In such instances, work on a new or revised ethics code can be an exercise in political oneupmanship.

Everything in moderation. Oneupsmanship is a term of art. If a bidding war develops among several grandstanding council members, each of whom would like to appear More Ethical Than Thou, things can get ridiculous pretty quickly.

Then again, if no one at all takes a stand in favor of rigorous ethical standards -- do we all pat ourselves on the back for not oneuping ourselves?

But the writing or revision of an ethics code can also be an occasion for, and centerpiece of, the founding of an ethical environment. The discussion of a new or improved ethics code can help a community determine its goals and ideals, and identify conduct that is consistent and inconsistent with an ethical environment. It can also provide guidance that will help people in and out of government think and act more ethically. Out of this process should come, besides the code itself, an ongoing ethics education system and an organized as well as informal system of rewarding ethical behavior and the examination of issues through an ethical as well as a practical lens.

SOLD! We like it.


From the model code itself:

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.

So far so good. Skipping ahead to the juicy stuff:

4. Gifts. a. An official or employee*, his or her spouse or domestic partner*, child or step-child, parent, or member of his or her household*, may not solicit nor accept anything of value from any person or entity that the official or employee knows, or has reason to believe, has received or sought a financial benefit*, directly or through a relationship with another person or entity, from the city within the previous three years, or intends to seek a financial benefit in the future.

If in doubt, the official or employee should refrain from soliciting or refuse a gift, and should first inquire into the person or entity's relationship with the city.

And from Rob's annotated commentary:

Cities have taken a great variety of approaches to the gift problem. The approach here is to limit only gifts from people and entities that do business with or otherwise get financial benefits from the city, including permits, zoning approval, etc. Other common approaches are to limit the amount of gifts or to limit the type of gifts or the type of givers.

That seems pretty cut and dry.

Officials and employees must file with the Ethics Commission, on or before January 31, a list of all gifts received during the preceding calendar year by them or by their spouse or domestic partner, child or step-child, parent, or member of their household, to the extent that the aggregate amount of gifts received from an individual or entity (including gifts from all employees, partners, or investors) during the year is $50 or greater. Information to be disclosed is as follows:

Well then. It seems in a model code, gifts may only be accepted from sources that have not had any recent significant interest in city business (even though it's a small town), and in this example all gifts greater than $50 must be reported.

There is no section marking an exception for tickets.


107. Penalties for Violation of This Code

Now we're talking. It's all well and good to tell people you can't do this and you can't do that, but how are you going to enforce it?

1. Resignation, Compensation or Apology

Violation of any provision of this code should raise conscientious questions for the official or employee* concerned as to whether resignation, compensatory action, or a sincere apology is appropriate to promote the best interests of the city and to prevent the cost - in time, money, and emotion - of an investigation and hearings.

Yeah yeah yeah. Those would actually be swell in certain circumstances.

2. Disciplinary Action

Any person or entity that is found to have engaged in action or inaction that violates any provision of this code may be reprimanded, suspended, or removed by the Ethics Commission, or the Ethics Commission may seek or impose any of the sanctions or remedies listed below or in 215.

There it is!

The commentary notes that many cities do not empower their Ethics commissions to suspend or remove city employees. Indeed, this can at times be acutely problematic from a legal and collective-bargaining perspective, as can be the levying of fines. However, reprimands are cheap, and easy, and effective.

I would have chosen the word "censure", but that's purely semantics. What politician wants to walk around with two or three Ethics Reprimands on their rap sheet? That would make it hard to get ahead in life.

Sure, one could always argue that the Ethics commission was full of beans in your case, or that the Pittsburgh Ethics code is notoriously restrictive and bothersome and written by twits. And you could be right. That would depend on how reasonable and lenient our code turns out -- a code which must also be strong enough to encourage good citywide ethics, and to establish a strong ethical foundation. It's a balancing act.

So what should Pittsburgh do with its ethics code when it comes to the narrow, hot-button issue of accepting gifts? In the New Haven Model Code, no gifts at all are acceptable from givers directly affiliated with city business -- and gifts given by unaffiliated individuals must disclosed if worth more $50.

Let's call the approach inferred by the Post-Gazette on Friday "the opposite extreme". It's a very worthwhile project that we're embarking upon and it's good we're underway.


  1. You know, I have to say this city has made more progress on ethics under Luke Ravenstahl than in any time I can remember. And yet, it has the feeling of "Only Nixon could go to China". Until Ravenstahl relents and decides to run his administration in an ethical manner, all the efforts towards ethics will carry a taint, will have question marks attached.

    I would not object if the Pittsburgh Foundation bought young Luke season tickets to the Steelers and the Penguins, and the Lemieux Foundation gave Luke a perpetual pass to the golf tournament, on the condition that Luke reports all other gifts and campaign contributions, and signs a Pittsburgh campaign finance law (even one that has a high ceiling on contributions to the Mayor).

  2. Check out this article on Ethics by Robb Thompson:

    The 3 Most Critical Steps for Ethical Leadership

    With leadership comes a great responsibility to uphold a standard of integrity regardless of the cost. All too often we see leaders compromise their lifelong forged ethics just to gain the ever fleeting reward of "momentarily getting ahead." This lack of ethical leadership has greatly shaped the values of our society. Albert Einstein said, "Try not to become a man of success; but rather try to become a man of values." John Maxwell coined the well-known phrase, "leadership is influence," and no one would disagree with that statement. But ethical leadership goes much deeper. Ethical leaders don't just influence others; they influence others to do what is right.

    As leaders we have a great responsibility to not only do what is right but also influence others to do the same. Temporarily, it may not be easy and most often it doesn't appear to be advantageous, but you must weigh every decision according to the long-term consequences of that decision. Ask yourself: What will it cost me in the long run if I compromise my integrity? What are the negative consequences that come from cutting corners or from cheating my customers? What reputation will I create if I make this decision?

    Below I have outlined the three most critical steps to achieve ethical leadership. By following these simple steps, you'll not only establish credibility among your clients, but you'll also outlast your competition. Credibility and longevity are what separate those who "just get by" from those who achieve great success.

    1. Hold yourself to a higher standard than is required. Every failure in life can be traced back to a compromise of character. You must raise your standards and set the example for those who work for you. Don't allow yourself to compromise your integrity, but be resilient to always do what is right.

    2. Keep your word. It doesn't matter what you promise. All that matters is that you do what's been promised. A leader is defined by the quality of his action, not the rambling of his words; therefore make it the rule to always under promise and over perform.

    3. Tell the truth and be honest with others. A simple definition of honesty is: behavior in words and actions that aims to convey the truth. Conversely, dishonesty is a way of speaking or acting that causes people to be misled or deluded. Always consider the interest of others and not just your own. I say it like this: I would rather you hate me for telling you the truth than for you to like me for telling you a lie.

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