Guest Blogger: Jeanine DeLay

Jeanine DeLay is a local ethics educator and former faculty member at Ann Arbor Greenhills School, where she taught applied ethics for twenty-four years. She also created a course in sport ethics in the University of Michigan School of Kinesiology, where she was a lecturer for ten years. She is currently the president of A2Ethics.org, a local nonprofit dedicated to promoting public engagement on ethics issues through education, social networking and collaborative events, including events such as the well-received Big Ethical Question Slam held annually at a local brew pub.  

DeLay looks for every and all opportunities to work with local illustrator Dusty Upton. They have collaborated on several projects. She also wishes to thank JoAnna DeCamp and Linda Fitzgerald for their assistance.


Why Ann Arbor Should Have a City Ethics Policy

For locals, like me, with an interest in the ethically slippery matters often accompanying politics and politicians, this has been a banner year for corruption. We have witnessed the contract-rigging trial of a former Detroit mayor, and the  severance pay scandal shadowing a Wayne County CEO.  

Watching other cities scramble to create new ethics patch-ups for their latest scandal can make Ann Arbor seem like a safe haven. After all, our local office holders and city employees are ethically mindful. We have a positive ethics record and an environment attuned to responsible practices. There have been ethical lapses and laxity on certain issues, but when we compare our missteps with others, they seem small. And if pushed, our fallback always is:  We live in Ann Arbor.  
  
The fact is, we are experts in exceptionalism, yet our current attitudes and policies on local government ethics do not promote political trust. What's more, they are outmoded and unsuitable for a community that values education.        

I propose that a comprehensive city ethics policy for local elected officials be placed on the city council agenda. Here are three good reasons why.  


1. At a time when trust in federal government officials is especially lowa transparent and easily accessible  local  ethics policy can encourage political trust.  
  
Politicians at all levels are deemed untrustworthy as long as the public believes they privately benefit and give special treatment to business partners, colleagues, friends and family. This is true even for  appearances  of cronyism and nepotism.  
  
The express purpose of a comprehensive city ethics policy is to define the most common special-dealing situations and relationships, and to enable officials to publicly disclose and manage them in a professional and open manner.     

2. Conflicts of interest are routine in local government. In and of themselves they are not wrong. But they pose significant risks.

An unattended, ignored or misunderstood conflict of interest by a local elected official increases the likelihood that the public's business will not be conducted for the public good.

A comprehensive city ethics policy would offer examples of : who is working for whom, for what purposes, and whether those connections benefit citizens.     

3. An ethics policy educates local officials in their public responsibilities and also informs citizens about them.  

Just as we don't expect local elected officials to be instant experts on all aspects of city finance, we can't assume they will recognize ethical situations and know instantly how to deal with them responsibly. Ethical practices require education and guidance from independent advisers.   
  
A frequent resource for ethics advice is the city attorney, which can result in answers that simply pass the "it's not illegal" permit test. But ethics advisers must be independent of city government.  

In cities where ethics ordinances have been passed, such as Miami, the best require independent, volunteer ethics commissions. The city of Jacksonville, Florida, for example, has an independent ethics office that serves as a go-to resource on ethics matters.           


In summary, we need a better approach to city ethics, one that takes into account the increasing importance of cross-jurisdiction cooperation in governing our communities. It's time for Ann Arbor to become exceptional by leading the way in our region...and assuming an aspirational role in how ethical government looks and works.     


Illustrations by Dusty Upton

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