“I consider ethics to be an exclusively human concern with no superhuman authority behind it.”
– Albert Einstein
The Augusta Commission’s ongoing struggles with ethics are neither surprising nor isolated. After all, as the good doctor noted, we’re all human.
Public officials are challenged to make decisions every day. Hundreds of them, in fact. Some are easy, others are tough. The process of decision-making – and the outcome – rely in great measure on the character of the people involved.
THE LAST TIME the city of Augusta came to grips with ethical challenges was at the turn of the century, the year 2000. The climate was ripe with allegations of corruption and distrust. A special grand jury issued a series of well-meaning but divisive reports on the government and the people behind it.
As mayor, I worked with the city attorney to craft an ethics ordinance that incorporated existing state law with specific standards of accountability for elected officials and employees. The purpose of the ethics ordinance is not to say “I got you!” but to keep public servants from getting into trouble in the first place.
Passing the ordinance did not come easy. We argued over the definition of “family member.” We had to massage it so that no one would get in trouble for taking Masters Tournament tickets. And so on.
In the end the ordinance passed, but I paid a price. The commission nearly defunded the mayor’s office for putting them through the exercise.
Two other things happened to make this a watershed moment for ethics. Augusta earned the City of Ethics designation from the Georgia Municipal Association, and the community-driven Character City initiative began.
Everything seemed in place – but, as Dr. Einstein observed,
“superhuman authority” was lacking.
Fast-forward to 2013. With all the commotion in the news, you’d think that after centuries of searching, the Holy Grail of ethics has been found. Not quite. It’s just people rediscovering the Augusta Commission’s ethics ordinance.
Actually, the most significant principle is contained in the “statement of ethical principles”:
“(N)ever accept … favors or benefits under circumstances which might be construed by reasonable persons as influencing the performance of his government duties.”
It’s not so much what you do, but what people think you do – the reality of perception.
LET’S FIRST PUT one matter aside. Whether you agree with government contractors making political contributions to the people who award the contracts, such donations are allowed under state law. They are legal and must be reported to the Georgia Government Transparency and Campaign Finance Commission in regular campaign disclosure reports.
So, let’s move on to the lobbying subculture, where the real money flows with no accountability at the present time.
I recall only months after being in office that a company interested in running our transit service offered my wife and me an all-expense-paid trip to Miami to attend a “leadership conference.” Coincidentally, the conference was being held in conjunction with a PGA tournament the company sponsored.
Given the absence of an ethics ordinance in 1999, such a gratuity would have been perfectly legal. I easily could rationalize the trip, since at that time no effort was underway to privatize the transit department and none was intended.
However, once the ordinance kicked in, taking a trip like that would be against the law, because the value exceeded the threshold of $100. But what if I went to Miami and just didn’t tell anyone? It’s not that easy.
The ethics ordinance clearly targets the money spent by vendors (and companies that want to be vendors) to curry favor with the elected officials and government employees who make procurement decisions. The law very specifically requires these firms to file annual reports on their lobbying efforts with the clerk of the Augusta Commission under penalty of perjury.
Such information surely would increase transparency in the county’s troubled procurement process, which has been the subject of grand jury reports and ongoing litigation.
SHOULD WE BE surprised that no company has ever filed the required report? Maybe they didn’t know. But whose fault is that?
The city’s ethics ordinance charges each agency head to be responsible to the Augusta Commission “for the faithful enforcement” of the ordinance. Failing to do so can result in disciplinary action, to include termination. Perhaps, if the commission is looking for a place to put teeth into the ordinance, it could start here.
Government service is hard – and it is really hard for the ethically challenged.
The Augusta Commission to its credit has one of the toughest ethics ordinances in Georgia. It’s past time to expect enforcement and accountability. Summer is here; we don’t need more hot air.
(The writer is a former Augusta mayor and current president and CEO of the Southeastern Natural Sciences Academy.)