In 30-some odd years of happening across just about every type of public official available in small towns and big from Michigan City, Ind., to Gallup, N.M., Ive come to a sad conclusion. It seems that there ought to be a course, something like "Ethics 101," available to all those seriously interested in civic service.
Unfortunately, theres nothing so common as a locally elected public official, nor one of higher office for that matter, who ends up shocked when theyre caught crossing that all too thin line between that which is and that which is not ethical.
And the rest of us shouldnt get so all high and mighty when it happens either. There are few of us who couldnt find ourselves wandering in the neither world between right and wrong without a map or compass to serve as guide.
But, Ive also discovered in my wide travels that a little bit of common sense goes a long way in avoiding some of the more obvious pit falls. Take for instance the city councilman in a community in Illinois I came across a few years back.
The gentleman, who was a building contractor in his professional calling, decided to do the city a favor when it wanted to install new windows in city hall. The obliging council member got the town what appeared to be a terrific deal of $12,000 to redo the buildings windows. However, a year after the guy leaves office its discovered that $4,000 of that good deal was the then councilmans commission on the transaction. On another occasion a county board member in Illinois, an insurance agent by trade, helped the county out of a tight spot by serving as chair of a committee to find a new health insurance carrier. He worked long and hard, so I was informed, writing new specs for letting the bids. But, as luck would have it an agent in the insurance agency where he was a partner and who sat as it just so happened a few feat from the board member at work each day, ended up filling those specifications, which amounted to several hundred thousand dollars a year in premium payments. In New Mexicos far flung Four Corners region another county supervisor was charging the county mileage for travel to and from the courthouse and any other spot where he felt his presence was required. As the county was of considerable size so was the bill, several thousand dollars per year. The local district attorney calculated that the supervisor owed the county an estimated $2,000 in reimbursement for the previous calendar year. These and other instances muted my surprise recently when a Dubuque County judge ruled that Dubuque Mayor Terry Duggan was in "conflict of interest" when he swung a vote for the controversial condominium project below Eagle Ridge bluff along the Mississippi and then discussed doing business with the same developer who benefited from his official actions. Heres some free advice for Mayor Duggan and anyone else interested in a career in both local business and politics. Dont do business with or for people who do business with the entity you are either elected or appointed to serve.
And if your need to feed your family or ego wont allow you to follow that simple rule, dont file for public office. I must be making progress over the last three decades, though. This is actually the first time a court of law has taken the time and considerable courage to actually rule on such a question. But it might be "gilding the lily" as my late grandmother used to put it, for the mayor to now consider using taxpayer money to seek an appeal of the court ruling.
I guess ignorance wont be one of the excuses used in Duggans appeal. How many times has he absented himself from other development votes on the City Council, explaining that doing so might create the conflict of interest hes now found to be in?
And each of those times hes explained that as a real estate broker he could find himself doing business with said developers. But using our money to fund the appeal is a little like asking the rest of us to pay for the mayors right to conduct his private business at our expense.
After all, we shouldnt have to waste more public funds to have a judge tell the mayor something we and he already know; YOU SCREWED UP!