How Ethical is Our Government? Seattle Times Editorial Board Warns of Municipal Malfeasance

Doing the right thing should not be hard. One usually knows when one is crossing an ethical or legal line but for some reason, the strong temptation of malfeasance is ever present. The Seattle Times Editorial Board has spoken out about municipal wrongdoing in their editorial, "SeaTac’s misconduct shows the need for transparency and watchdogs", and we applaud them for doing so.

From the editorial:

WATCH out, Washington. We are entering a golden age of municipal malfeasance.

In recent months — just in King County — Kent officials illegally sold off a public park to developers in secret, the Black Diamond City Council treated the state Open Public Meetings Act like a soiled napkin, and SeaTac’s staff colluded to steal a parcel of land from local business people.

Those are just the ones we know of. Daylighting these instances of misconduct or even corruption require watchdogging by the media and a lawful adherence to Washington’s public-transparency laws. Both seem to be on the wane. And we’re all the worse for it.

I believe that most of our government officials are honest, hardworking and ernest. But what happens when those otherwise honest officials choose to turn a blind eye when a colleague strays and may have violated the law?

We want to thank the Seattle Times Editorial Board for shedding light on these issues. Good governance is the foundation of our democracy and let's be frank: we don't always elect the best and brightest of our species to represent us in government. Over the past decade, I have personally witnessed several cases of egregious wrongdoing and abuses of power by local officials who otherwise conduct their lives as honest, community-minded, good people whom I personally like. I dealt with these issues directly with individuals rather than alerting authorities or I assumed that their peers in government would themselves enforce their own ethics and legal rules. I was mistaken. I was the witness to the dirty underbelly of local politics and it left a bad taste in my mouth.

If one chooses collegiality over accountability, is one doing the people’s work or is one abdicating one’s oath of office?

Corruption of this kind is prevalent in government. Handing out favors is par for the course. Is this merely hyperbole? No. The truth is that similar things happen everywhere in life outside of government. The difference is that in government, the impact of making backroom deals and granting of favors is unmatched. In government, doing favors for one's friends by definition harms others who seek a fair chance. When officials make decisions which benefit their friends, or to right a perceived wrong, they are tipping the scales in the favor of one over another and that is wrong. I have seen it many times. You may have as well.

If one wonders why our electorate is so mistrustful of government, one need only pay attention to the stories of corruption in the media.

Our system, by design, benefits those who “play ball” and support others with political power.

Just so there is no misinterpretation, I believe that most of our government officials are honest, hardworking and ernest. But what happens when those otherwise honest officials choose to turn a blind eye when a colleague strays and may have violated the law? Is one guilty of wrongdoing when one chooses to ignore, or to look the other way when another crosses an ethical or potentially legal line? If one chooses collegiality over accountability, is one doing the people's work or is one abdicating one's oath of office?

Bad stuff happens. But bad stuff happening in government has a greater impact and that is why we hold our government officials to a higher standard. Our representatives are here to serve us, not themselves or their friends.

Turning a blind eye to potentially ethical or legal transgressions is commonplace. When those in government turn a blind eye to transgressions, it allows the least honorable of our representatives to rise in power.

Politicians helping politicians

They say that politics creates strange bedfellows and I believe this to be true. I also believe that in many cases, political ambition leads to poor governance. Let's look at a hypothetical situation with our friend, honest Abe:

Having had a taste of political power, Abe, our local elected official, desires to run for higher office in the county or the state legislature. In order to run for higher office, Abe needs the support of powerful people in county and state offices to endorse and raise funds for him.

For Abe to even be considered by these powerful politicians, Abe must have a voting record which supports their agenda. So honest Abe must support the plans of those electeds in the county and state even when those plans are not in the best interests of his own constituents. Abe must scratch the back of the county and state or else Abe will not have their support when he chooses to run for higher office. This is the political reality. And it happens every day.

This is why poor decisions are made by our elected officials -- for political expediency. Our system, by design, benefits those who "play ball" and support others with political power. Abe will find justification for voting for things which are not in the interests of his local constituents in order to curry favor of the politically powerful. So, Abe sells out his constituents so that he may attain higher office and gain more prestige and more power himself. Of course, Abe will convince himself and all around him that he needs higher office to do greater good. And many will buy that story because we want to believe in people and in our system. Soon Abe has deluded himself to believe that all he supports is righteous and good and that bucking the system is counter productive.

With great power comes great ability to do either good or harm. Abe doesn't even recognize the harm he inflicts on the "others" when he is doing good for those on his side.

Turning a blind eye to potentially ethical or legal transgressions is commonplace. When those in government turn a blind eye to transgressions, it allows the least honorable of us to rise to power. Thank you to the Seattle Times Editorial Board for keeping government honest. Politicians, like everyone else, need to be called out when they misbehave.

The challenge for us all is this: when we see wrong doing, we need to stop it rather than choose to look the other way. Bad things happen when good people don't act, both in government and in our daily lives.