Boot Camp for City Officials Teaches 'A Culture of Ethics' ; at a Seminar in California, Municipal Leaders Learn How to Stay on the Straight and Narrow in Times of Temptation

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Wearing lanyards and camp T-shirts, the 23 "campers" sat in a circle in the dark around a flickering TV screen. They watched horror videos of real-life public officials who went astray, tempted by bribes, nepotism, and other shady opportunities to benefit themselves over the public they were elected to serve.

The viewers' "counselors" were ethics specialists wearing "moral compasses" around their necks and putting their "campers" - city officials and ethics commissioners from Florida, Texas, and Arizona - in simulated ethical dilemmas.

After hearing a tale of an Oklahoma official who sold her pharmacy rather than appear unethical in a legislative vote that might have benefited her business, one participant said, "I think that's stupid. Why sell your business just so the public can have more trust in the process?"

Billed as the first of its kind boot camp for municipal ethics, the two-day gathering here at Santa Clara University on June 21 and 22 could become a model, some experts say. It would serve as a way for local elected officials, academics, and ethics commissioners to prepare for ethical dilemmas that officials deal with in office.

"Usually when an ethics commissioner and public officials come together, it is with sweaty palms and high heart rate because it is an adversarial situation in the heat of battle," says conference designer Judy Nadler, former mayor of Santa Clara and senior fellow at the University's Markkula Center for Applied Ethics. "This was conceived as a way to see how they can both work together to support a culture of ethics in their cities to sidetrack problems before they happen."

Since the Watergate scandal in the 1970s, only a handful of national institutes devoted to ethics training for public officials have been created. State legislatures, police departments, and corporations often respond to one-time local events or seek to cover themselves when public- relations problems occur.

Not much attention has been paid to municipal governments, although they have more public servants than state and federal governments and are often not as savvy about possible ethical problems. Local governments in various states do have their own programs, but these often only meet minimal legal requirements.

Several high-profile scandals, including the collapse of Enron, drug doping in the Olympics, and steroid-abuse in baseball have resulted in a national trend to get serious about tackling ethics.

"Controlling conflicts of interest and self-dealing has been on the agenda of every government since the Ancient Greeks . …