Ethics and the Public Service Power Trip
By DARRYL MANZER.
Published in The Signal, 3-19-2006.
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I served on the Stormwater Management Commission of the city of Chesapeake, Va., for almost nine years.
Now, that sounds like an easy job. Water flows downhill and eventually goes into a river and on to the ocean. Make sure the storm drains and ditches are clear, and it shouldn't be a problem.
Not in Chesapeake.
The highest point in Chesapeake is in the Great Dismal Swamp all of 22 feet above sea level. Everything else is below that "height." The swamp is full of water brackish swamp water, so it isn't called "the Great Dismal Swamp" without good reason.
I served on the commission because of my sense of public service. Our job was to assist the City Council and planners in resolving storm water drainage problems and to set priorities for the funding of major capital improvements. In those nine years, many former small ditches turned into major canals as new housing developments and shopping malls were built.
So I'm reading about your various boards and commissions in the Santa Clarita Valley. The school and college boards are fascinating. It seems that they have these "foundations" that help them get funding for school improvements and building sites which isn't a bad idea, except when some school board members are also members of the foundation board. I picture it as having a member of a city council being appointed to a city commission. Strange twist there.
As I understand the foundations, they can raise funds and buy land for the schools, and then turn it over to the schools at little or no profit. Here is the problem: When the board members are also members of the foundation board, they are making financial decisions for both organizations only the foundations aren't as transparent as the school boards, since they aren't working with public money. Should the foundations greatly profit at the expense of the schools, nobody may ever know.
What a great loophole y'all have created out there! All in the interest of "public service," when I'll bet it is more in the interest of lining the pockets of foundation members. Nothing more and nothing less.
I'd probably still be a Stormwater Management Commission member if I were still in Chesapeake. I loved the job at times. I even felt I had just a little power in how the city was being shaped. It can get to be a pretty "heady" feeling when you tell a rich developer that his drainage plan is inadequate and he'll have to spend a lot more money to make it right. Oh, what a feeling of power.
That power feels good. Ask any incumbent member of an elected or even appointed public service position. For many, that feeling of power is a real turn-on. They love it. What starts as an altruistic desire to serve your fellow citizens too often turns into nothing more than a fight to retain the power you've gained, and to get more, if possible. And if you can exercise some of that power outside of the public eye, all the better.
This power they feel corrupts them. Every time. Without fail. If it were pure "public service," most folks would last a maximum of two terms in office in any position. Your own congressman originally ran on a "term limit" platform. How about your county supervisor? Yep, he did, too. City Council members and school board members? Many of them started out thinking maybe one or two terms. It doesn't always work that way, does it?
If an elected official also happens to be a member of a foundation that makes money to help them in that elected position, isn't that just a little bit of a conflict of interest? If that elected official makes money from serving on the foundation, it is a conflict. But it must be legal. The board, council, legislature or Congress fill in the blank voted and approved the foundation, so it must be legal. Right?
Wrong. Sure, the actions may be legal from looking at the letter of the law, but ethically it is very wrong.
In an era when ships of the Navy can be named after former presidents who are still alive Bush I and Ronald Reagan, too, at the time and parkland can be named after a sitting county supervisor, why not pass a law to make it legal? What's wrong with that? It is a question of ethics, pure and simple.
Near as I can find out, Mentryville wasn't called that until after Mr. Mentry died. Even if it had been named Mentryville prior to his death, it was located on private property and was done so out of respect for a private benefactor and not a public servant.
Power gained as a public servant should not include any perks. I know the laws would be much different at all levels of government if those perks weren't attached to the power. Imagine if a congressman had to grocery-shop and fight for parking places at a mall. Imagine if "fact finding" trips had to be paid for by the individual elected official? Imagine if "foundations" couldn't have elected officials sitting on their boards.
Imagine if ethics returned to government. What a wonderful dream! For the current crop of elected officials, it isn't a dream they want to have. To them it would be a nightmare.
Darryl Manzer lived in the Santa Clarita Valley oil town of Mentryville in the 1960s as a teenager. He now lives in Virginia.