ETHICS IN Luzerne County government? The topic of this essay ends with a question mark. The reason for the question lies in the undercurrent heard in the recent conversations in Luzerne County.
The conversations lie between two poles. One pole is anchored in hope and possibility; the other is anchored in skepticism and cynicism. At the first pole, the conversation is of people who are sick and tired of corruptive actions in the recent past and are weary of the ridicule directed to Luzerne County and its residents. They think and hope that ethical practices in county government are a real possibility. At the second pole, the conversation is of people who hold that it is impossible to have ethics in government and that the power that comes with public office is corruptive in itself. They point to the recent past – at all levels of county government – as evidence to support their cynicism and skepticism. And they claim for themselves – by personal privilege or privilege of office or profession – an exclusion from the requirements of good government.
To support the hope and promise of good government – government that serves the people – the residents of Luzerne County are experimenting with a new form of government. There is a new commission embedded in that new government. It is the Accountability, Conduct and Ethics Commission, and it has a code to direct its work – the Accountability and Ethics Code.
The ethics code to be applied by the commission requires that all public officials adhere to the practice of good government or risk application of the sanctions found in the code. The code is inclusive in its application. It applies to the county manager and all employees who serve under the manager, the county council members and all who serve the council, the judges and all who serve the judiciary, all members of authorities, boards and commissions, all elected officials and all who serve in their offices.
The code requires honor and integrity of all public officials and serves notice on public officials that they are called to serve the interests of the public. It demands the respect of appropriate confidentiality in the performance of duties. It requires the disclosure of financial interests. It forbids the exertion of improper influence by its specific restrictions on gifts, loans, benefits and considerations, and by its limitations on private business enterprises. It proscribes patronage, nepotism and unjust discrimination. It encourages public officials to report violations of existing law and binding codes, and it provides them whistle-blower protection. It provides guidance for voting conflicts, use of county resources, political activity, honoraria and contracts.
Adherence to the ethics code can provide a framework within which lies the possibility of good government in Luzerne County. It will require the support of all public officials as well as county residents.
The code itself requires that covered persons sign a document attesting to the facts that they (1) received a copy of the code, (2) understand its contents, and (3) agree to abide by its provisions. The code does not replace any codes of professional conduct, and the provisions of the code are not in conflict with any laws or statutes. It simply calls all public officials to ethical conduct in discharging the duties of their offices.
The Luzerne County ACE Commission calls upon all public officials starting from the top – county council, the county manager, the judiciary, all elected officials, boards, commissions and authorities to show their commitment to ethical government in Luzerne County by reading the code and attesting, by their signatures, to their willingness to abide by its provisions.
Residents of Luzerne County can contribute to good government by their adherence to the codes and laws of the county and by their appropriate participation in government. Adherence to the ethics code requires them to forego improper influence on their own behalf and to use the appropriate mechanisms for solving their disagreements with public officials or public bodies.
The ACE Commission cannot be asked to behave unethically, to unilaterally initiate action to correct a perceived wrong or to resolve disputes that are legislative in nature rather than ethical. The ACE Commission provides access to its complaint forms and its timeline for reviewing complaints on the Accountability, Conduct and Ethics page on the Luzerne County website ( www.luzernecounty.org). It also cautions citizens of the possible violation of law and sanctions should they knowingly file a complaint with false information. The requirement of ethics bears on the citizens as well as the officials.
Research in developing ethical organizations – whether business, political or academic – indicates that there are several key factors that determine the character of the organization. Among them are the following: (1) there is buy-in from the top, (2) there is a set of clear guidelines, (3) there is public evidence (often a signed statement) of commitment on the part of all to the enterprise as an ethical one, and (4) there is a receptive culture.
The time for Luzerne County is now. There is a set of clear guidelines. There is a public hopeful of the possibility of good government. There is a new team – legislative, executive and judicial – in place.
We look forward now to the stepping up of the leadership – the leadership of public officials and of citizens – of Luzerne County.
Margaret Monahan Hogan, of Exeter Township, is chairwoman of the Accountability, Conduct and Ethics Commission for Luzerne County.