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
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 . …