What Milton, NY Understands About Ethics That Most Businesses Don’t

My catching up on goings-on around the country for my Municipal Ethics News and Views blog started with this piece blaring the opinion that the San Diego ethics commission is an expensive redundancy that overreaches. Now if it's true that they are "hiring a new investigator to check whether campaigns are using 12-point type for their 'paid for by' lines, as required by city law, instead of the 6-point type required under state law", I share some of the writer's concern. However, the central argument is that most of the local ethics code is already covered by state law. Maybe so, but does the state have both the resources and the interest in monitoring local government ethics at the same level as local governments do? With rare exceptions, I hardly think so. Bravo to San Diego – as well as the other California cities with their own ethics commissions – for taking the proverbial bull by the horns and assuring that their city's ethics stay in line. Is there a question about how they are spending their resources? If so, that needs to be openly discussed and challenged – but not used as the foundation for a wholesale dismissal of the importance of the commission and its overall mission.

It's easy to attack local government ethics codes, or the code of any organization, for exactly the reasons they need to be in place – they require that those covered by the code do what is right as opposed to what is merely easy or convenient at the time. This piece from Macon.com quotes councilman James Timley as saying of their ethics code, “I didn’t vote for it… You want to do all this stuff that makes you feel good and look good, but I told you this would come back to get us.” Now I need to allow both that this quote might be out of context in the article and that I haven't seen the Macon code. However, the sentiment is a both common and unfortunate one. This happens to be regarding a local government ethics code but it's a complaint is heard throughout the private sector as well.

If one doesn't support an ethics code because it truly does overreach or because it is either toothless or otherwise unenforceable, you have my total support. However, in that case, work to create a more appropriate document and enforcement structure, not dismiss the idea of a code! That a code makes some things less convenient is a ludicrous reason to attack it, assuming that the inconvenience is simply due to assuring that officials and employees are doing the right thing. Should codes be as 'user-friendly' as possible? Absolutely! But, like it or not, sometimes doing the right thing in government, business, or anywhere else for that matter, is not what happens to be the most convenient.

Meanwhile, little Milton, New York seems to 'get it'. After, apparently, a history of ethics concerns, they decided that they needed to take some serious steps towards assuring improved ethics and did exactly that. In fact, as this piece from the Saratogian reports, they managed to do what most far larger governments and businesses haven't been able to achieve – they got everyone into the same room, decided in a bipartisan manner what needed to be addressed, and then did exactly that. Bravo! Of course, their code has yet to be formalized and approved but – if the reports of their start are any indication – they are truly well ahead of the pack compared both to many local governments and businessses.

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