To achieve ethical county government deputize everyone, expert recommends
Carrie Buchanan, Cleveland Heights resident and member of the editorial advisory board of the Heights Observer, was one of 15 members of the Code of Ethics Workgroup that presented recommendations to the newly formed Cuyahoga County government. (The current code of ethics, adopted temporarily by the new council, expires on March 22.)
The Transition Advisory Group, which oversaw the changeover to Cuyahoga County's new charter government, appointed an executive committee to establish and oversee the work of several workgroups, each group compiling recommendations for a different aspect of the new county government.
The Code of Ethics Workgroup was an outgrowth of New Cuyahoga Now, a reform group that promoted the new form of county government. Lynda Mayer, who monitors county government for the three League of Women Voters chapters in the Cleveland area, served as chair for the workgroup. At a public meeting at the City Club on Jan. 10, sponsored by the Society of Professional Journalists (SPJ), Mayer told the audience that she had contacted a variety of people, including academics, lawyers and politically active citizens, to ensure a diverse group with expertise in municipal government.
"This code is quite different from most ethics codes," said Buchanan, a professor of journalism and communication at John Carroll University and vice president of the Cleveland chapter of SPJ. She pointed out the two most significant things that must be done to make this code more effective than its predecessors.
"This Code of Ethics must be enforced or it is . . . hypocrisy," Buchanan told the audience at the City Club, which included eight members of the new Cuyahoga County Council. Proper enforcement, she added, means that a budget is needed to fund an independent ethics officer and staff at the local county level.
The second important difference is the protection the code offers to whistleblowers. "The entire code is predicated on this," Buchanan said. "If people are afraid of retaliation, they won’t report wrongdoing when they see it."
The City Club event featured a talk by Richard Condit, senior counsel to the Government Accountability Project, based in Washington, D.C. This focus of this organization, which has been in existence for more than 30 years, is helping to draft legislation that protects whistleblowers, which in turn brings about more ethical and accountable government.
Condit pointed out that a leading indicator of misconduct, in both the public and private sectors, is the fear level of employees. The greater the misconduct they witness and know about, the higher their level of fear about speaking out. Deputizing all employees and citizens to be guardians and monitors of the law, as the new code does by offering protection to whistleblowers, will help promote integrity, Condit told the audience.
Condit praised the Code of Ethics Workgroup for its inclusion of a clearly laid out list of prohibited conduct for all employees, contractors, contractors’ employees, plus penalties for failing to follow the code. "A code without penalties has no teeth," he said.
For a copy of the proposed Code of Ethics, go to the website of the Cuyahoga County Transition Advisory Group at http://charter.cuyahogacounty.us/en-US/code-of-ethics.aspx and click on "Proposed Code of Ethics Draft Recommendations." For more information about the work of Government Accountability Project and its protection for whistleblowers, visit www.whistleblowers.org.
Anita Kazarian is a frequent contributor to the Heights Observer.