Monday, June 14, 2010

A Cooper City Ethics Proposal

I have placed an item on tomorrow’s commission agenda regarding Cooper City and ethics. I believe we must adopt, and add to, the proposed Broward County Ethics Ordinance. Some parts of it are great, yet it didn’t go far enough. We also need campaign reform along with a system of dealing with the dirty politics of late that have negatively plagued our great city.

Unfortunately, a city cannot ‘legislate’ integrity. It can write a code of ethics for officials and public employees, but it cannot impose honesty. Honesty must begin with public officials who believe in core civic values and morals. A public official must be honest in his or her own values. He or she must think to himself and declare to others; I will tell the truth, I will keep my word, I will be professional, I will treat citizens with respect, I will cooperate with business owners, I will do my job to the best of my abilities, I will listen to the public, and I will be progressive. As a public servant, I have tried to do just that.

In the terms of its own charter, city government is supposed to be honorable. City governments like Cooper City seem to sometimes operate in an ethical vacuum. Cooper City has no rules of ethics of any consequence. Not all corruption is blatant criminal conduct like bribery or vote fraud. For this we have laws, prosecutors and people like some of the recent county commissioners to make examples of. The real problem that undermines honorable government is "soft corruption". Intimidation, harassment of people who speak out, giving too short of a notice of pending actions to discourage debate, distortion of facts to mislead the public (outright lying), or evasive actions to avoid disclosure of conflicts of interests.

Simple honestly is the core value of any system of ethics. But as I said, you cannot legislate truthfulness, fidelity, or dedication. A public official is honest or not honest. If he is not honest, he will not be any more honest the day after a code of ethics is enacted than the day before. It really starts with honest people. How you get honest people to run for office and how you motivate voters are questions of political strategy, rather than ethics.

Unfortunately, Cooper City is now known as part of the cesspool of dirty politics (I myself use the term ‘politricks’ based on all the dirty tricks used against me by my past opponents and some on the current commission) in Broward County. The answer to political ethics and corruption is political action. There must be honest people who are willing to do something for the betterment of our city and speak out without fear of retaliation or fear the dirty tricks played upon them and their families. When honest people run for office, and voters put them in office and when these reformers do what needs to be done without compromise or lame excuses, whether it is better rules, programs, or education, then that is when real reform can begin.

Cooper City, as noted, has no code, or ethics training, of any sort. It has an interesting, but essentially useless provision concerning conflicts of interest. The state code of ethics, in part, applies to city officials, but is not vigorously enforced and has severe shortcomings. City commissioners have shown little interest in developing a public ethics program in our city. Thus, any implemented code of ethics can become "technicalities" in the hands of unscrupulous public officials, evadable with a little creativity. Rules, as they say, are made to be broken, and it happens consistently in our city.

The fact is, this city and most others like it are run by small groups of people. Most people don't vote. Less than ten percent of the resident’s control who will serve as public officials and what will be in the charter. Not many people attend commission meetings, or watch it on TV or the Internet, write letters to the editor, or even concern themselves with civic affairs yet they affect them directly. The people who have the stamina to read through this treatise are interested in local affairs and well informed, but how many residents of Cooper City even know who the city manager or their city commissioner is?

There are no signs that an uprising of the masses is about to occur demanding ethics reform. Residents seem more upset with property taxes, soaring insurance costs, government waste and other pressing economic and financial issues. People are probably more concerned with new trash collection rules than with abstract questions of public ethics. But, we don't need a mass movement. We just need public officials and employees to adhere to a good set of ethics rules and standards.

An official can be honest, but not be very professional. He can be competent, but uncivil and disrespectful. He can be gracious, but lie and do unlawful and dishonest things. Criminals are not necessarily brutes, but crude people are not necessarily liars and thieves. Yet most people would agree that lying, stealing, and cheating are wrong, even if many, on the other hand, are willing sometimes to forgive or overlook dishonesty. There is an agreed principle or imperative, a rational basis to ethics, a reason why it is wrong to lie, steal or cheat. The imperative in the case of the ethics of politics and government, is the public trust.

A public official is vested with the requisite powers to discharge the responsibilities of his office. Aside from the legal implications of giving someone in a public position this mantle of authority, the investiture of considerable power over the lives of ordinary people also represents the confidence that people have in the person who has, that is, is entrusted with, that power. As such, the public's trust is imperative.

Public trust is built upon the agreed principles of right conduct in civic affairs, such as truthfulness, fidelity, honesty, teamwork and professionalism. On the other hand, where the usefulness of local government in the service of special or insider interests is the political dynamic of the city, civic values and principles of right conduct such as these may be displaced. After all, speaking the truth or keeping one's word can be inconvenient. It sometimes also depends on the agenda you are trying to push at a commission meeting. An honestly informed public invites dissent and delay, so why would any public official admit his loyalties are not to the citizens? Your answer is probably right...

If ethics reform were a simple matter, the city could just copy a code of ethics from the many codes already in existence. It would then have its own set of guidelines for the right conduct of public officials and city employees which it does not have now. But would it have ethical government? The solution isn't that simple.

The competitive nature of elections invites dishonorable and corrupting behavior. We have seen that in our great little city, and it’s bad enough to make you want to wonder, why and/or how did it get so bad? What is so important to candidates and elected officials that would resort to the kind of politricks we have seen in Cooper City? It isn't the commission pay, but it certainly may be the money. It boils down to control in my opinion.

The council-manager structure, which turns the administration of the city over to a "professional", meaning non-political, highly qualified person selected after an exhaustive search, provides, in theory, a counterpoint to the seedy political side of government. Nonetheless, the key policy-making positions must remain elective to insure that citizens have the final say on public policy and in the conduct and character of public officials. There seems to be no better way to select city commissioners than by a vote. It just needs to be an honest vote, not one supported by political action committees, non-profit organizations and fraudulent absentee ballots.

Public ethics are grounded on values which reflect the agreements of the community on the right conduct of public officials and the proper functions of local government. This does not necessarily result in honesty, truthfulness, or professionalism as these may not be the dominant civic values of a community, although they should be. Consequently, there is an institutional basis for corruption in politics and government that cannot be overcome by a simple statement of rules and procedures.

The personal integrity of public officials and city employees is the basic component of any system of ethics. Honest officials tell the truth, keep their word, do a good job, set aside personal interests which conflict with the public interest, do the best they can in representing their constituents and faithfully serve the citizens of the city. They do not steal or misappropriate public funds, even under a pretext of serving the people. In both their personal and public lives, they try to avoid even the appearance of impropriety.

While good government always starts with good people, the operating philosophy of the city government sets a standard for official conduct which transcends the personal integrity of its individual members. Is city government an open and responsive government, or one operated by and for insiders, with information concealed and the public record distorted to support special causes? Is public opinion casually and arrogantly disregarded, with public business conducted in the shadows? Yes to both questions.

If the leaders of the community do not set the proper standards, it is the right of the citizens to write the standards. The city charter amendment should insure that people are able to get complete and accurate information from the city and require that the business of the city be conducted in the open and with fairness to all concerned. The problem is, it may or may not be in writing, and it may or may not be practiced as it should be.

Any City Charter should read: The citizens of Cooper City, in order to protect the health, welfare and safety of its residents, and promote honorable, efficient and responsive government, hereby adopt a Code of Ethics.

This is the agenda item I have placed on the agenda for discussion at tomorrow night’s city commission meeting. Although it is a proposal, and modeled after some great ethics codes and campaign practices, it needs to be addressed, refined and implemented.

As such, the ethical city official should:
Properly administer the affairs of the city.
Promote decisions and votes which only benefit the public interest.
Actively promote public confidence in city government.
Keep safe all funds and other properties of the city.
Conduct and perform the duties of the office diligently and promptly dispose of the business of the city.
Maintain a positive image to pass constant public scrutiny.
Evaluate all decisions so that the best service or product is obtained at a minimal cost without sacrificing quality and fiscal responsibility.
Inject the prestige of the office into everyday dealings with the public employees and associates.
Maintain a respectful attitude toward employees, other public officials, colleagues and associates. Effectively and efficiently work with governmental agencies, political subdivisions and other organizations in order to further the best interest of the city.
Faithfully comply with all laws and regulations applicable to the city and impartially apply them to everyone.

The ethical city official should not:
Engage in outside interests that are not compatible with the impartial and objective performance of his or her duties.
Improperly influence or attempt to influence other officials to act in his or her own benefit.
Accept anything of value from any source which is offered to influence his or her action as a public official.

There are many more issues and details to consider, but the most difficult issue to be addressed in ethics reform is how to create a tribunal to consider allegations of unethical conduct which is itself immune from politics and corruption. To be effective, such a tribunal should have subpoena power as well as the power to make findings and determinations which respect to any complaint. It must be impartial and truly independent of any political influences or favoritism. The complaint process, also, should be made as simple as possible so that there is full citizen access.

The important features of this model are that members are appointed in a manner which makes it difficult for political officials subject to its jurisdiction to unduly influence its proceedings, and it employs independent counsel.

If ethics reform is to be successful in a community, it must be viewed as a comprehensive program with several components. One component is the body of rules, guidelines and procedures which are designed to maintain public trust in the city government. Ideally, the code of ethics will be grounded upon a wide consensus in the community favoring honest and ethical government. This component would also include government openness, transparency and access to all.

A second component is an authority, an ethics commission created to be as independent as possible, to consider and rule upon ethical issues. Again, ideally, the ethics commission will be comprised of "experts," that is, people who uniquely and substantially qualified to serve in this role, and people who have little or no personal interests in local politics. The commission should also be able to employ special consultants, investigators and masters, and should be advised by its own counsel.

Third, a training program should be devised and seriously administered to all employees, vendors and commissioners. Fourth, the ethics commission should have adequate administrative support, and the support element should be independent of the city administration. The support element, or another element, could be given some summary authority to deal with minor infractions.

We also need serious campaign and election reform. It really does not matter whether money, that is, the expenditures of a candidate, is the determinative factor in the outcome of a typical election. Unfortunately, sometimes it seems as if it is. What is important is that people give money to candidates in order to gain influence. This is why the contribution reports are interesting, to see who may get an advantage when the candidate is elected. If a candidate receives a large percentage of his campaign finances from developers, it is presumed that he will give consideration to developer interests in his votes over what is perceived to be the better public interest.

Cooper City has nothing pertaining to campaign contributions, thus candidates can receive up to $500 per contributor and, doubtless, some contributions are bundled, especially to the mayoral candidates. If limitations modeled on the Sarasota laws were enacted, it would be a new ball game in Cooper City at election time. Candidates can say that contributions from developers don't influence their decisions all they want, but most common-sense people know better.

In addition to finance issues, we need ethical issues to be enacted in Cooper City elections. I can say first hand that I have seen the worst, unethical politricks in our city, and it emanates from a choice few individuals and groups who do not have your, or the city’s best interests at heart. I can honestly say that some in city hall, and their supporters, despise me more than they love their city! How sad…

Aristotle viewed hate as a desire for the annihilation of an object that is incurable by time. In psychoanalysis, Sigmund Freud defined hate as an ego state that wishes to destroy the source of its unhappiness. It can also be used to disparage a person or group of people based on their social or ethnic group, such as race, gender, age, ethnicity, nationality, religion, sexual orientation, gender identity, disability, language ability, ideology, social class, occupation, appearance (height, weight, skin color, etc.), mental capacity, and any other distinction that might be considered by some as a liability. The term is also sometimes called antilocution and is simply a measure of prejudice in society.

I don't know if the citizens of Cooper City are interested in an honest, caring government or not. Only five or six citizens attend the meetings of the commission on a regular basis, if that. There has also been little discussion about the wrongs that have been blatantly committed, and the betrayal of the public trust that had been alleged in our city. The importance of everyone adhering to uncompromising integrity and ethics rules is paramount, but rules alone can’t guarantee ethical conduct. Only people can do that. Responsibility to uphold a code of ethics for public officials must be in everything we do, and it starts at the top. As such, we need to implement it at the top, starting tomorrow.

Excerpts used with permission

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  1. Of course, our Mayor, Debby Eisinger, chose to thoroughly disgrace this city and disrespect the intent of the proposal. When is it going to end? Maybe a recall effort against her will quiet her down!

  2. See this blog's comments on ethics...


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