Perhaps one of the most puzzling of proposals, what this one is about isn’t immediately obvious to everyone. Yes, one might understand what ‘ethics’ are, (“the principles of conduct governing an individual or a group”, per Merriam-Webster), and even what a ‘code of ethics’ is and why an organization might want one, but for such a straightforward concept the proposal seems rather intricate.
This proposal seeks to accomplish three key things:
- Establish an Ethics Commission
- Direct the creation of a Code of Ethics
- Outline the option for appointing an Accountability Officer
We’ll go over what each of these parts is doing, but first, it’s worth briefly considering the idea of ‘ethical violations’ by elected officials. Your mind probably goes to substantial breaches like taking bribes, giving contracts to one’s own companies, falsifying records, misusing government funds, etc. These things are unethical, but they’re also crimes. Crimes are well dealt with already by local, state, and federal law, and generally these don’t need any help from the Charter Commission.
But what about acts that don’t rise to the level of criminality, but are still considered to be unethical? These may include sharing of personal (but not legally protected) information, giving or accepting gifts of borderline inappropriate value in borderline inappropriate circumstances, intentionally using influence over procedure to disenfranchise particular persons (e.g. scheduling for inconvenient times), or being disrespectful towards one’s colleagues. These things might get you fired from a private-sector job, even if they’re not illegal. It makes sense to hold elected officials to similar standards.
Establishing an Ethics Commission
But what, really, is unethical? If we all knew and agreed with one another, there’d be a lot of philosophers out of a job. Pause for effect. Establishing bright lines for unacceptable behavior in some places, and constructing guidelines that allow for nuanced consideration of individual cases in others, these things would be the purview of the new Ethics Commission. Seven members, appointed by the City Council, each serving three year terms, the Commission would be charged with several tasks, including (but not limited to):
- Preparing a draft Code of Ethics for the Council to review
- Hearing complaints and rendering judgement on allegations of ethics violations by city employees
- Giving advisory opinions to the Council on questions of ethics violations and compliance
- Designing programs for evaluating government employees and departments for ethics compliance
- Tri-annually reviewing the prior products of the Ethics Commission, including the Code of Ethics
The Commission shall meet at least annually, but the proposal doesn’t seem to assume meeting much more frequently would be necessary. In short, this will be a body of trustworthy, independent local figures who will be charged with determining what is and what isn’t an ethics violation, and facilitating oversight of city government to ensure that they’re all acting within the “isn’t” column. The proposal also mentions that the Ethics Commission may request funds from the City Council when necessary to conduct independent investigations, which suggests that if a crisis were to erupt, the Ethics Commission could rapidly expand from a sleepy, rarely-meeting board of do-gooders into an active mediator and watchdog. We shall see if this ever comes into relevance.
Their most notable job, at least at first, will be drafting the Code of Ethics.
Code of Ethics
The Code of Ethics, if enacted, would be a list of acts and behaviors deemed unacceptable in city employees or elected officials. In this way it would be not unlike a criminal code, but instead of the punishments being fines or imprisonment, the repercussions would be merely professional, including suspension, termination, or censure. The proposed reform outlines standards of conduct, conflicts of interest, propriety with confidential information, and proper disclosures as subjects that must be addressed by the Code, but any number of further subjects may be considered by the Ethics Commission.
What’s the point of a legally non-binding Code of Ethics? It may not be able to put people in prison, but having a democratically-enacted standard of behavior to use as a yardstick for judging possible violations is useful for all parties. On the one hand, people who do clearly breach these ethical expectations won’t be able to express surprise or ignorance that what they did was wrong, they will have known the Code of Ethics. This makes level-headed judgment against violators a far more straightforward process. But on the other hand, if you are accused of doing something unethical, but you genuinely don’t believe it to be so, you’ll have a neutral source to point to in your defense.
The Ethics Commission will draft the basis of the Code of Ethics, but it will have to be reviewed and approved by the City Council. Along with the Code, the Ethics Commission will probably also submit a recommendation as to whether or not the city should hire an Accountability officer.
The Accountability Officer, if recommended by the Ethics Commission and hired by City Council, will be a new post in city government. They will be responsible for acting as a general ombudsman (or as the proposal inclusively if unbeautifully puts it, “ombudsperson”) for the public, which means that they will be the designated point of contact for any citizen who’d like to report unethical behavior in the government. See an elected official unfairly favoring her brother’s contracting business? Call the Ombud- I mean, Accountability Officer. They will then be charged with investigating these allegations and reporting back to the Commission or Council.
Beyond this role, they will also be a subject-matter advisor to the City Council, train government employees in ethical behavior, and perform any reasonable duties asked of them by the Ethics Commission. Just the go-to person for all things ethics.
Why might you vote in favor? – If you feel that having an established standard of ethical conduct for elected officials and government employees is long overdue, and allocating resources towards ensuring compliance with these ethics policies is a worthy investment.
Why might you vote against? – If you think that all this is just more expensive bureaucracy that the city doesn’t need, and that most everyone knows a crooked actor when they see it. You don’t need to put together a special commission to write down that calling your coworker a rude name is unethical, just deal with these things through the established hierarchy.
Background ~ What is the Charter Commission?
1 ~ The Land Acknowledgement
2 ~ Governance
3 ~ Elections
4 ~ Voting
5 ~ The School Budget
6 ~ Peaks Island
7 ~ Police Oversight
8 ~ The Ethics Commission
Conclusion & Opinion