Ethics in county government have real value
By Eddie A. Jones, AAC Consultant
Zig Ziglar, who was an American author and motivational speaker, said, “The most important persuasion tool you have in your entire arsenal is integrity.” We often hear the term government ethics used in the media and by politicians and political commentators, yet it isn’t always clear what is meant by this term. Generally speaking, ethics refers to the study of right and wrong behaviors.
In our daily lives we are constantly faced with important questions about what to do. We face the same thing in our government jobs. As Martin Luther King said, “The time is always right to do what is right.”
Many times a public official will say, “But I didn’t know.” Guess what? That doesn’t matter. You took an oath to uphold the laws of the State of Arkansas, the State Constitution, and the U.S. Constitution … “So help me God.” County officials and all public servants have a responsibility to uphold the law. The law is there to learn. Don’t blame someone else for your ignorance. Buckle down and learn the law. That’s your job. And there are ethics to observe in carrying out those laws.
Government ethics refer to the unique set of duties public officials owe to the public they serve. These duties arise upon entering the public work force either as an elected official or a member of government staff. So for simplicity’s sake, please know that when we refer to public officials, we are referring to all public actors, be they elected, appointed or hired.
The relationship between public officials and the public can be described as fiduciary in nature. The term fiduciary is defined as relating to “a person to whom property or power is entrusted for the benefits of another.”
Examples of fiduciary relationships include those of the attorney/client, executor/heir, and principal/agent. You can readily see why the public official/citizen relationship is similar. The electorate delegates governing authority to public officials to exercise discretion over the public treasury; to create laws; and to administer programs and government functions that will impact their lives. The public trusts that the public official will act in the public’s best interest.
Ethical obligations for government officials are not a new concept. In Ancient Greece, Plato called for death for public officials who took bribes. In 1215, King John of England signed the Magna Carta, which promised among other things, “To no one will we sell, to no one deny or delay right or justice.” Not long after that in 1254 King Louis IX of France promulgated conflicts of interest rules for provincial governors.
In 1776 our Declaration of Independence acknowledged the concept of delegated authority. It says in part:
“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness. That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.”
History concludes that several delegates attending the constitutional convention in 1787, including James Madison and Alexander Hamilton, advocated for a fiduciary form of government. Maryland representatives literally declared themselves to be the trustees of the public.
Ethical duties flow from the public fiduciary relationship — then and now. Those obligations include duties of care, loyalty, impartiality, accountability, and preservation of the public’s trust in government.
The duty of “care” requires that the public official competently and faithfully execute the duties of the office. That includes managing assets competently and being good stewards of the public treasury; using due diligence in the selection and supervision of staff/employees; following the rules; and upholding the constitution and laws. That takes us back to one of my opening statements. You must put in the time to learn your duties and the laws governing your office and county government in general.
To be ethical you must be loyal. To whom? Public fiduciaries have an absolute obligation to put the public’s interest before their own direct or indirect personal interests. You breach that obligation when you benefit at the public expense. Prohibited benefits can be financial, career related, or personal, such as benefits to family members or close associates. When general ethical duties to family or friends conflict with duty to the public, the public duty must always prevail.
Public officials have a duty to represent all of their constituents fairly and impartially. This means you cannot favor those of your own political party over other constituents, or let the fact that someone voted against you impact your ability to act fairly. You must overcome any inherent bias that you possess. A public official must avoid targeting particular constituencies for favor or for punishment. Bottom line — the Equal Protection Clause of the U.S. Constitution is in essence a codification of the duty of impartiality.
What about accountability? Without a duty of accountability, the public’s ability to monitor the behavior of public officials would be severely limited. From the duty of accountability comes the duty of transparency and the concepts of disclosure, open meetings, and accessibility of public records. The courts have ruled “implicit in the democratic process is the notion that government should be accountable for its actions … and individuals must have access to government files….” That’s why in Arkansas we have the Freedom of Information Act of 1967 as amended, codified as § 25-19-101 et. seq. The people’s right to know what its government is doing has been enshrined as a fundamental right in law.
Does it sometimes seem onerous to comply with making records available to Arkansas residents? Yes, it does. But as public officials we must always be transparent and willing to disclose any of our actions and records of those actions, unless it’s something protected by law from disclosure. It takes extra effort but that’s part of public service.
Without public trust, government doesn’t work. Trust in government is so important that public officials are charged with protecting and maintaining the public trust. As stewards of the public trust, officials have a duty to avoid even the appearance of impropriety. So even if a particular course of conduct does not meet all of the elements necessary to constitute a violation of law, it nevertheless may be unethical if it creates even the perception of wrongdoing that will harm the public trust. The Institute for Local Government advises public officials to always ask themselves whether it would be a bad thing for a particular course of conduct to be reported on the front page of the local newspaper.
Civility and respect toward colleagues and the public also help ensure the public’s trust in the efficiency and effectiveness of government. Rancor and animosity displayed by county officials and quorum court members toward each other causes the public to wonder if private feuds are taking precedence over the common good of the county. When constituents are treated with lack of respect, it causes the public to doubt the fairness of their treatment.
I fully understand that people have become cynical and suspicious of its government. But what do we expect in a nation where political animus is running rampant? As public servants in the great state of Arkansas we need to do our part to correct that. Public service requires a continual effort to overcome cynical attitudes and suspicions about the people in government. We really are here to serve.
For the citizenry of your county to retain its trust in government, it must have confidence that those in public service are at all times acting in the best interest of the public. As stewards of the public trust, county government leaders and employees have a responsibility to act in a manner that is fair and unbiased, that is loyal to the public by putting public interest before personal gain, and that fulfills duties of competency, integrity, accountability, and transparency.
In fulfilling these duties you will encounter unavoidable ethical dilemmas. Dilemmas involving fairness; dilemmas involving conflicts between personal interests and the public’s interests; dilemmas involving the faithful execution of your official duties; dilemmas involving acting with integrity; and dilemmas involving accountability.
The life of a great public servant is not easy. Only those that really want to be a servant should enter the field of public service. Public officials have the responsibility to uphold the law and serve ethically.
Upholding the law is one thing. You must learn the law. Don’t blame anyone else for your ignorance if you don’t know the law concerning the duties and operations of your office. It’s there to learn, but it doesn’t jump into your brain on its own. You must apply yourself and study.
Secondly, you have a responsibility to apply the law and all of your public service actions in an ethical manner. “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” The ultimate learned ethical behavior is contained in the ancient translation of the Golden Rule. Learning to make ethical choices begins at birth and is a life-long growth process. Ethics are a requirement for deciding on a course of action. Ethical belief systems are established and learned in life through environments of home, school, religion and social gatherings that mold and shape those ethical beliefs.
If you are to be ethical the flip side is “Don’t Be Unethical.” What sorts of conduct are commonly considered unethical? They include but are not limited to:
Theft and fraud by public officials. One of the more serious ethical issues in government is theft of public property. It can range from the trivial, like taking home office supplies, to the grave, such as stealing money from the county. Fraud is probably the most common and costly form of theft by public officials. Fraud is theft by deception or trickery. It occurs when someone deliberately deceives others in order to unjustly gain personally.
Improper use of government property. This probably happens in county government more than anything else. The use of public property by public officials for private benefit is unethical and against the law.
Bribery and influence peddling. Bribery occurs when a person of authority is offered and accepts some personal benefit in exchange for performing some action. Influence peddling is a particular form of bribery in which a public official sells his or her ability to influence government decision making.
Conflict of interest and self-dealing. This is a common issue in government ethics and occurs when a public official’s private interests are such that they may influence the performance of his or her public duties. Public servants are expected to exercise impartiality and objectivity when performing official duties. When there is a conflict of interest, there is a concern that the official may favor some interest other than the general public. Self-dealing is one of the most obvious. This occurs when an individual’s activities in their official capacity involve dealing with their self in a private capacity, usually for personal benefit.
As a public official the responsibility lies squarely on your shoulders. Not someone else’s. Don’t be an “Adam.” Adam, in Genesis 3:12 said, “The woman you put here with me … she gave me some fruit from the tree and I ate it.” That triggers thoughts. How many times have you been guilty of blaming someone else? Sounds like Flip Wilson’s famous statement, “The devil made me do it!”
Yep, good ole Adam invented the oldest line ever used to shift blame to someone else for his own actions. Take responsibility for your actions.
Public service is an honorable profession when carried out honorably. One of our founding fathers, Thomas Jefferson, said, “Honesty is the first chapter in the book of wisdom.” The supreme quality for public leadership is unquestionably integrity. Without it, no real success is possible. There is real value in ethical service. As Mark Twain said, “Do the right thing. It will gratify some and astonish the rest.”