Unfair Sacrifices?

Local government officials need to make certain sacrifices to show their community that they are acting for the community rather than for themselves and for those with whom they have special relationships. There are jobs and clients they cannot take, contracts and grants they cannot get, properties and businesses they cannot invest in, gifts they cannot accept. And they have to disclose to the world the jobs, properties, and businesses they do have. To officials, this seems unfair.

After all, many officials have already sacrificed potentially higher pay in the private sector, or they are serving as volunteers or low-paid local legislators, giving up their precious time for the community. Why should they have to sacrifice more? The reason is that with power and authority come responsibility and obligations. And every obligation entails sacrifice. For example, parenthood and childhood (as an adult) both require sacrifices. Government service is no different.

What is important for officials to recognize is that government ethics is not only beneficial to a community’s residents. It is also beneficial to them. It helps officials do their jobs more professionally, and it helps them keep out of scandals involving themselves and their colleagues.

It is hard to manage a community under a cloud of scandal. While protecting the community from officials’ mishandling of conflict situations, a government ethics program also protects officials by providing rules and advice, which allow them to deal with their obligations to others in situations that may be very uncomfortable for them.

Take, for example, an official who has little respect for a nephew who wants a no-bid contract, or who disagrees with her own employer’s position on riverside development, or who wishes her law firm had never agreed to represent that bastard who is seeking a permit from his board. A government ethics program protects such officials by requiring them not to be involved with a nephew’s contract scheme, not to have to vote against an employer and thereby jeopardize one’s job, and to reject a law partner’s request to help out a client.

It takes just one decision that appears self-serving to lose one’s position or the respect of the community necessary to push for the policies an official thinks are important. The requirement to withdraw when an official is stuck between a rock and a hard place (another way of describing a conflict) is a good thing not only for the public, but also for the official.

– Wechsler, Robert. Local Government Ethics Programs in a Nutshell. City Ethics, Inc.
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