H.L. Mencken wrote, “Conscience is the inner voice that warns us somebody may be looking.”
An organization with strong ethics doesn’t mind the onlookers.
The city of Spokane is taking steps to strengthen its ethics code and committee, which is the latest indicator that Mayor David Condon isn’t satisfied with business as usual at City Hall. He doesn’t need to take this step. There’s no scandal to prompt it; no public call from others to get it done. But in the name of greater transparency, he wants the code updated.
He’s asked City Attorney Nancy Isserlis to spearhead an upgrade, and she’s produced a detailed document that would clarify some areas, widen the reach of the code and strengthen enforcement. She also wants a full-time staff director for the ethics panel.
For ideas and inspiration, she looked at other cities, including Seattle and Denver, which have more extensive guidelines. Her goal is that all City Hall employees be subject to the beefed-up code. Personal services contracts, which have caused some concern in the past, are not covered in the proposal, but Isserlis said that doesn’t mean they couldn’t be included.
The city adopted its current code after the scandals associated with then-Mayor Jim West. It became clear that the city needed to draw clear lines in the areas of “moral turpitude” and using the office for personal gain.
The current committee has yet to find anyone in violation, but many workers are exempted from the code. At the outset, it only covered elected officials, then it was expanded to the mayor’s Cabinet. Through bargaining, a couple of employee unions have accepted the guidelines.
If the City Council accepts these changes, bargaining to bring unions under the code would need to begin anew.
It should go without saying that the credibility of any organization – whether public or private – would benefit from establishing a strong ethics code that is reliably enforced. But the Idaho Legislature, for example, has rejected attempts for independent oversight.
Of course, most people think they’re ethical and pure of heart, which is precisely why a neutral body is needed to get at thorny issues surrounding favoritism, self-dealing and conflicts of interest. Citizens should be given a formal process to register complaints. Leaders who say that’s what the ballot box is for simply don’t respect – or, perhaps, would like to avoid – the investigatory work of impartial commissions. The wrongdoing has to be uncovered before it’s punished.
The concept of ethics itself is subjective, which is why an agreed-upon code is needed. Some people don’t see the problem with working as a government regulator one day and jumping sides to work for a business they were regulating the next. Others don’t mind using their office to help their friends or to break down a barrier that’s a personal hindrance.
The city of Spokane sees the need, and that’s good. Now it wants to reinforce its code, and that’s even better.