Do the right thing

The excavator incident has exposed both legal and ethical holes

In the aftermath of Richmond County’s “loan” of equipment and manpower for a private project in another county, we can’t help calling to mind the ancient parable of Birdsnest.

 

The reputation of the wise treetop-meditating monk spread far and wide, and one day a governor stopped by to ask him the most important thing the Buddha ever said.

“Don’t do bad things,” the monk replied. “Always do good things.”

The governor, who had traveled far, felt the advice was elementary, even condescending.

“I knew that when I was 3 years old!” the governor protested.

“Yes,” the monk replied. “But have you done it?”

We could all use that reminder – especially in the wake of the recent county brouhaha.

The grand jury declined to indict anyone in the incident – in which, at the direction of then-Environmental Services Director Mark Johnson, two employees took a Richmond County excavator to work at a former landfill contractor’s private property in Lincoln County.

The jury’s decision is completely understandable, given the apparently ambiguous nature of Georgia law when it comes to incidents of county property and manpower being “loaned out” to private individuals.

Of course, that makes one wonder why the law is vague on the matter. Perhaps no one ever contemplated the possibility? Maybe the law needs to be clarified.

Or maybe public employees should just be reminded of county policies and regulations. And of Birdsnest.

While the grand jury is obligated to dismiss the actions of the two employees dispatched to Lincoln County, one public official sagely asked us over the holiday weekend: Why did the two employees not protest being asked to do what was clearly wrong?

Though that may not be a question of law, it’s a matter of basic right and wrong. Those employees had to have been 3-year-olds not to know it was wrong to take taxpayer-paid equipment to another county and work on private property on county time. Johnson, who has since resigned and taken a severance payment, had to know as well.

Administrator Janice Allen Jackson is still investigating the incident, and it’s possible it will color an ongoing rewriting of the county’s personnel policies and procedures.

But while it’s clearly necessary to spell out such ethical boundaries in writing, it shouldn’t be. Each of us should be carrying with us that moral compass that Birdsnest talked of.

While there have been much worse transgressions than this one, it has nonetheless revealed a gaping ethical hole to go with the legal one.

As she investigates the mini-excavator mini-scandal, and perhaps revisits policies and procedures, Ms. Jackson should also make it clear enough to her charges that they are all responsible for doing the right thing at all times – even if directed by a superior to do something else.

The law may ultimately let everyone involved in this back-scratching episode off the hook, but a fundamental sense of ethics would not be as accommodating.

 

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