Conflicts Happen: Let’s Be Proactive

As government scandals befall communities near and far, it is time to be proactive about an ethics ordinance for Bethlehem.

Bethlehem’s current code of ethics, passed by resolution in 1991, is inadequate by today’s standards. It is merely aspirational, provides no specific guidance for public officials regarding conflicts of interest or proper decision-making when conflicts arise, and contains no complaint procedure or enforcement mechanism. Many communities and most large cities have advanced beyond a simple code to establish a comprehensive ethics program.

An ethics program’s primary goal is to provide education and guidance to officials. It is difficult to hold public officials accountable if they are not given the tools to recognize conflicts of interest and handle them properly. The public also needs to have the tools and procedures to hold public officials accountable. Public officials often have blind spots, can have difficulty distinguishing between personal loyalty and public obligations, and do not always appreciate how the public views their behavior.

People usually enter public service with the intent to provide fair and honest service to their communities. However, carrying out their responsibilities routinely involves interacting with individuals who aim to influence matters involving contracts, procurement, land use, permits, and licenses in their own self-interest. Especially at the local level where personal and business relationships are often involved, it can be very difficult to recognize and handle the inevitable conflicts that arise and avoid the appearance of impropriety that is so essential to maintaining public trust.

Easton, Reading and Philadelphia have drawn on the considerable body of knowledge about municipal government ethics to create strong ethics programs managed by a board of ethics. Key components include independent third-party education and counsel for officials, robust disclosure, investigation of complaints and enforcement of standards.

Best practice requires passing an ordinance that covers areas of concern in government ethics, such as conflicts of interest; gifts; pay to play; campaign finance; preferential treatment; the revolving door; confidential information; nepotism; political activity; disclosures; and whistleblower protection. It would also establish an independent, volunteer ethics board, whose members are nominated by nonpartisan organizations to oversee the program.

Pennsylvania’s ethics statute governs municipalities, but it is notoriously weak. In 2015 the Center for Public Integrity ranked Pennsylvania 48th in transparency and accountability, characterizing it as “an entrenched culture of malfeasance.” Fortunately, the state statute permits cities to enact stronger ethics legislation. Adopting a comprehensive ethics program is especially important at the local level where many public officials get their start. A strong ethics ordinance and board can serve the public as well as politicians as they move on to higher office.

Bethlehem City Council will convene a special meeting 6 p.m. Monday, February 27, 2017 to discuss an ethics ordinance for the city. The public is urged to attend to learn about the ordinance and express their views.

The ordinance, sponsored by City Council members Olga Negron and Michael Colon, has been developed over the past year by community members in consultation with experts, the League of Women Voters and other communities. It is consistent with best practices in the field. Monday’s discussion follows an earlier panel discussion sponsored by the League of Women Voters and the South Side Initiative in November 2016 to inform and engage the community.

There is a modest cost to establishing a strong ethics program, but consider the cost of a poor ethics environment. Misconduct and corruption cost taxpayers when decisions are influenced by gifts, campaign contributions, special access and preferential treatment. All too often the result is higher costs for services, lost revenue, needless construction, poor staff morale and staff turnover, etc.

Scandal not only tarnishes individual reputations; it tarnishes the community’s reputation, which can significantly affect economic development. There is also a cost in public confidence. When public officials make decisions or appear to make decisions that have been influenced by special interests, the public rightly feels betrayed and public trust is lost.

The question is not whether Bethlehem can afford an ethics program, it is whether we can afford not to invest in one. I urge Bethlehem City Council to be proactive and adopt a comprehensive ethics ordinance, the gold standard, for Bethlehem.

– Barbara Diamond, printed in The Morning Call, February 23, 2017