Thursday, March 13, 2014

A Dim Light on Ethics

The City Council has decided to postpone any discussions on investors involved in city supported development driven projects. Let's be clear. They are postponing the discussion because it is connected to the mayor's wife and the mayor is running for re-election. You do not have to be a rocket scientist to know that, no matter how hard some of the councilors protest that it just ain't so. It's all about appearances and once again councilors fall short of the public trust.

The ARGUS LEADER, in yesterday's edition, published an article on the city council's latest action on this subject: "Councilor Greg Jamison wants to shine a light on who is investing in projects that receive a boost from tax increment financing, or TIF. He is running for mayor against incumbent Mike Huether and raised the issue after learning Huether's wife had invested in the Bancroft Place Apartments. That project was approved for $475,000 worth of TIF funding (from the city coffers) in May 2011.

This latest action to postpone any action, lead by Councilor Karsky, until after the election is disappointing. The Ethics Board reviewed Cindy Huether's involvement in the City financed TIF and decided she did nothing wrong. That is technically true, because the conflict of ordinance language only speaks to elected officials and city employees. It does not address an elected official's spouse or family member.

However, let's be clear about our expectations of elected officials. We expect them to be above reproach. We expect them to be able to demonstrate that they are ethical people, capable of knowing when something violates the letter of law and yes, even when it might give the appearance of unethical behavior. When you serve the public, splitting hairs on the letter of the law indicates a lack of understanding and real commitment to the public trust. Why is it so hard to say I will not only act within the literal meaning of ethics and conflict of interest ordinances but also will not act in a manner that gives the appearance of impropriety?

The city council could have taken the Ethics Board ruling and stood tall by acknowledging that the mayor's wife did not violate the letter of the law in this case but that they stand firmly behind the city's code of conduct by adopting a common sense approach and commitment that an appearance of impropriety is just as bad as actual ethical behavioral misconduct.

When you look for any way to justify your position, it shows a lack of trustworthiness, transparency and an understanding of the public trust. Elected official should bend over backwards and go above and beyond the norm to prove their behavior is above reproach. It should always pass the smell test.

The ethics board was asked to rule on whether Cindy Huether violated city conflict of interest/ethics ordinances. They said no and they were right. City Councilors used that ruling to hide behind in their public proselytising that it's not political and has nothing to do with the mayor's race for reelection. I think they doth protest too much. Doing the right thing acting above reproach means you never have twist the facts or meanings to support your position. Here again, it's the appearance factor.

Elected officials need to be and act squeaky clean, not just give it lip service. The mayor knew his wife was investing in a development driven project that received TIF support funds from a city department that he directly supervises. If he didn't know it, then he is not as on top of city business as he says he is.

The appearance of impropriety is just as important to recognize as the literal letter of law. When elected officials can't or don't recognize that, you have to wonder just where their moral compass actually lies. In this case, I'd say their moral compass is off kilter.

Dim the light on ethics at Carnegie Town Hall and the Mayor's office. Acting above reproach without a hint of impropriety is the right thing to do when you are elected official. It's the true meaning of public trust. City Councilors have failed the test and so has the mayor.

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