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Charter Review and the Public (Jean Aoki)
Balance of Service (Marilyn Bornhorst)
Viewpoint (Arlene Ellis)
Women at the Peace Table (Ruth W. Iams)
Proposed Budget FY 1991-92
Ala Wai Community and Convention Center (Queen Emma Foundation)
Committee Nominates Slate of Directors for Honolulu League
Action Alert
Guide to Ethics in Municipal Government (W. Edwin Sumner)
Your Opinion Matters
Thank You (Anne Parton)
Membership Column

A Guide to Ethics in Municipal Government


The issue of ethics in government is of great concern to League at the local, state and national levels. Conflicts of interest among our elected officials is being addressed in the Honolulu City Council through proposals to allow for abstentions from voting when the conflict is deemed to be substantial and may give the appearance of influencing the vote. This issue has arisen recently on the state level where there are no regulations covering the issue. The following excerpt from "A Guide to Ethics in Municipal Government" by W. Edwin Sumner found in Current Municipal Problems, 1990, is an attempt by one state to clarify problems that exist within the "gray area" of ethics.

Many people are unaware of the broad statement of principle found in the Georgia Constitution with regard to the appropriate relationship between public officers and the people. The Georgia constitution provides: "All government, of right, originates with the people, is founded upon their will only, and is instituted solely for the good of the whole. Public officers are trustees, and servants of the people and are at all times amenable to them." (Georgia Const. Art. I. Sec. II, Para. 1)

The emphasized language establishes two roles for public officers, whether elected or appointed. First, the public officer is a trustee of the people. Trusteeship brings with it the concept that an elected official or public officer stands in a fiduciary relationship with the people. A fiduciary relationship demands of the trustee that the trustee carry out his or her duties with the sole intent and purpose of benefiting the object of the trust. Thus, a public officer's actions should be designed to benefit the public good, not 'to improve the standing of the public officer, except as the officer may share in a benefit as a member of the public-at-large.

The second idea suggested by the constitutional provision is that a public officer-is a servant of the people. A servant cannot exist without a master. Thus the Constitution suggests that the public are the masters and public officers are servants who are charged with carrying out the wishes and meeting the needs of the "master."

Georgia does not stop, however, with this constitutional provision, but has numerous common-law principles and statutory provisions applicable to ethics in government.

Common Law, or Court-Made Rules

Common law, in the context of this article, is the idea that judges take factual situations and try to glean from those situations basic principles that ought to govern the conduct of human affairs. This is a tradition handed down from the English legal system, which evolved well before there were detailed statutory provisions governing the conduct of relationships between people. It is important for city officials to understand that an action which may not violate a specific criminal or civil prohibition against conflict of interest may run afoul of broader ethical principles which have been established by court decisions.

...It is not only actions which can violate conflict of interest principles. Circumstances and situations can create potential violations of the ethical principles applicable to the conduct of governmental affairs. Temptation plus opportunity equals the appearance of wrongdoing, and it is this appearance of wrongdoing which the Georgia courts have sought to avoid....

To illustrate these concepts, one court decision involved a mayor who owned a car dealership. The city engaged in sealed comparative bids for police cars for the city. The mayor's car dealership clearly had the lowest bid for the cars. The court, careful to avoid suggesting that the mayor took any wrong action or improperly influenced the council's decision, still invalidated the car purchase contract. The court conceded that the contract with the mayor's car dealership was the lowest and most advantageous bid ...but found that the situation presented an appearance of wrongdoing which could not be tolerated....

W. Edwin Sumner
in Current Municipal Problems, 1990

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