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Ethical Dilemma

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Local governments have attorneys, planners, and engineers on staff, but it might be time to hire an ethicist. Or at least put one on retainer.

Under state law, local governing bodies are required to approve a new ethics policy by June 30, 2007. But last week, after a discussion over who should review ethics complaints, the County Commission ethics policy ad hoc committee sent its lawyers back to the drawing board.

Last year, in the wake of the Tennessee Waltz scandal, the state legislature enacted the 2006 Ethics Reform Act, which stipulates that local governments adopt ethical standards relating to conflicts of interest and gifts.

Under a mandate from the state, the County Technical Assistance Service developed a model policy that included a five-person County Ethics Committee to receive and investigate ethics violations. The model committee was to be composed of three county commissioners, one constitutional county officer (or another county commissioner), and one member of another board governed by the committee ... or another county commissioner.

Mayor A C Wharton went before the ad hoc committee last week to suggest that the Shelby County panel should be composed of retired judges, lawyers, and business leaders.

"Whatever model we go with, there's got to be a window that the public can peek in," said Wharton. "We've got to get the public away from the idea that ... elected officials just look out for each other."

While Wharton thought that public involvement would add credibility to the county's ethics policy, some members of the commission bristled at the thought of the general public constantly looking over their shoulders.

"I have a problem with laypeople trying to determine what's legal and what's not," said Commissioner Sidney Chism. "You go on Web sites and read comments from people who think they are highly intelligent, and I find they're just straight-out crazy."

It's an interesting question: Who is best suited to judge the ethics of elected officials? And who do elected officials think is best suited to judge them?

Commissioner Mike Carpenter noted that people face a jury of their peers every day at 201 Poplar, and those decisions can result in life sentences. Or worse.

Lawyer David Cocke, a member of the ad hoc committee, said that the public often demands ethics reforms that are more stringent than what is legally required. But even though that may scare local politicians, public involvement is the only thing that will satisfy and reassure an increasingly jaded citizenry.

"Everyone suspects politicians are going to take care of their own," said Cocke. "You've got to find people who are impartial to make recommendations."

The public cannot be blamed for believing that politicians look out for other politicians. Think about last year's motion to censure City Council members Rickey Peete and Edmund Ford in the wake of federal bribery charges. The council couldn't even find the votes to ask them to resign, much less censure them.

After the County Commission committee decided to craft a new draft based on the model policy, Commissioner Henri Brooks proposed keeping all allegations secret until an investigation had determined that an ethics violation had actually taken place. The commissioners wanted to protect against someone making ethics violation allegations for political gain.

Fair enough, but keeping allegations secret -- even false ones -- would be so much worse. Someone would leak the allegation to the media, reporters would call, and no one would be able to comment officially. But I'd bet the person who reported the ethics violation would be more than willing to talk, especially if it was a false allegation for political gain.

Too many politicians have abused the public's confidence. If the public is going to trust elected officials, it's going to take a lot more openness and a lot more information.

But as jaded as Shelby Countians are, they also seem very forgiving. Look at some of the dubious things John Ford was reportedly doing before he was indicted. People still like him. And Rickey Peete was reelected to the City Council after a bribery conviction.

But I could be wrong. Maybe my ethicist will know.

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