A Few Minutes with the Mayor, April 2014 – by Paul Becker

Please note… the following words are written with my professorial hat perched atop my head.

In today’s world the question arises… what is the definition of ethics, for often it seems to be lacking in at least some of our public officials. At least the daily headlines keep telling us that. One interpretation says, Ethics are “the moral principles that govern a person’s or group’s behavior.” Another is, “they are the rules of conduct recognized in respect to a particular class of human actions or a particular group.”

OK. That’s enough. Let’s take the hat off. After all, doesn’t everyone understand what ethical behavior is all about? They should, as the poet Carl Sandburg stated. “I had taken a course in Ethics. I read a thick textbook, heard the class discussions and came out of it saying I hadn’t learned a thing I didn’t know before about morals and what is right or wrong in human conduct.” Oh! Oh! With some trepidation I take exception with Carl. Sure, it isn’t ethical to kill one’s spouse because his or her snoring bothers one. That’s easy. However, government officials constantly face somewhat less dramatic questions of improper behavior in their everyday lives. Let’s look at some hypothetical examples in this analysis.

In our first example, let’s make you a City Councilor (or Mayor). You are also a real estate agent and you are the agent for a landowner who is seeking a land use decision from the Council. Do you participate in your role as Councilor? This is an easy one to answer. Of course not! You recuse yourself.

Alright! Let’s try a tougher one. Again, you’re a City Councilor (or Mayor). This time you’re not an agent. You do have a personal bias against a landowner (or organization) appearing before the Council in the matter of zoning appeals or other issues. Do you participate or do you recuse yourself? The question can be posed another way. Can you set aside your bias and be truly fair and impartial? You might want to think you could, but should your bias become public knowledge, the day will come when you might wish you had recused yourself. To be honest and impartial, you really have to act and think honestly and impartially.

This can be a tough call for some people. Politicians can’t always stop from bringing personal agendas to the table. After all, everyone has some viewpoint about most things. If they didn’t, they’d probably be pretty dull people. However, there are times when one is supposed to set aside one’s pre-conceived thoughts and engage in honest and open fact-finding before making a decision. But when that public servant maintains a deaf ear in light of any facts presented which are in conflict with his or her bias, then that public servant is acting unethically.

Now… for our third and final example! Again, you’re a Councilor (or Mayor). This time you fear you are on the minority side of a major decision the Council will soon make. Nonetheless, you are determined to stop this train once and for all before it leaves the station. In order to do that, you try to enlist a major “player” in the city’s business community on your side. You hope to see economic and political pressures applied to your fellow councilors that will force them to change their minds. But you want to keep the “appearance” of being impartial… so it’s all done “backstage” out of view. You’re able to appear as innocent as a newborn lamb while the dust settles from the turmoil you created.

Is what you did illegal? Probably not! Is it unethical? Some will say no. My answer is a firm yes! Surreptitious behavior is dishonest behavior. Hiding your presence in the events leading to the final Council conclusions would be both misleading and a disservice to your fellow councilors.

Hopefully, this short addendum to the Ethics 101 course has been at least enlightening if not entertaining. Next month there will be a discussion of something dear to my heart… motion pictures and Hollywood, hopefully without stepping on the toes of two brilliant writers on the subject—Paula Block and Terry Erdmann whose work graces these pages.

Posted March 28, 2014