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City workers: Ethics concerns hard to broach

Original post made on Aug 2, 2013

The ethical climate at Palo Alto City Hall is generally sunny, though many city workers feel the city can do better when it comes to rewarding strong performance and encouraging employees to speak up about ethical violations. Those are results of a survey of more than 300 employees that was recently conducted by the Office of the City Auditor.

Read the full story here Web Link posted Friday, August 2, 2013, 9:01 AM

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Posted by Wayne Martin
a resident of Fairmeadow
on Aug 2, 2013 at 9:54 am

Special Advisory Memorandum - Follow Up to the 2008 Audit of
Employee Ethics Policies and the Results of 2013 Ethical Climate
Web Link

I have always had a problem understanding “ethics”. If I run a red light, then I have clearly broken “the law”. But there are many grey areas in life—particularly in institutional settings, or in the so-called “professions”. If we create laws to help people understand what is right (in society’s eyes) and what is wrong—why do we leave so many grey areas for (all too often) for our government’s employees, and the “professions”?

This memo from the Palo Alto City Auditor uses the term “misconduct” nine times in his treatment of the “ethics” of our City employees. Yet, he provides us with no concrete examples of what ”misconduct” is, relative to a City of Palo Alto employee. Certainly it would seem only reasonable for the Auditor to provide the public with some concrete examples of “misconduct”, and buttress these examples with citations to official policy statements. And pressing that point a bit, the Auditor should perhaps investigate the City’s training programs to determine if its employees are being provided adequate training as to what actions are clearly prohibited, and which actions aren’t.

For instance—let’s take Public Information Requests (PIRs). It’s not hard to hear people say that their PIRs have been ignored, or the responses were “non-responsive”. Responding to the public is “the law”. So, when a City of Palo Alto employee ignores a PIR—is that “illegal” behavior, or “unethical” behavior?

A couple of years ago, the City was embroiled in a real mess over at the Children’s Theater. Cash handing by one key employee was clearly out-of-control. So, is this sort of action on the part of a City of Employee “illegal”, or “unethical”, or is it possibly “ethical”, but “undesirable”?

Recently, in Menlo Park, a Police Officer made the news because he was caught naked in a prostitute’s room while he was on duty, in another city. Although he was arrested, presumably making his actions “illegal”—was he also acting “unethically”? Since the Santa Clara County DA (Jeff Rosen) managed to find a way not to take the case to court, the officer was not convicted, and after some legal maneuvering, managed to get his job back on the Menlo Park Police Department’s role of Menlo Park’s “finest”. I don’t remember the word “unethical” appearing in any of the news reports on this matter, so since he got his job back—seems that neither the word “misconduct” or “ethics” applied to him.

This is a fairly high level review of “ethics” in the local government workplace. I’m a bit concerned that the problems associated with Palo Alto “ethics” are not being monitored by this approach. For instance—PA supposedly offers its employees a “tip line”. In the context of “ethics”—it would seem desirable for the Auditor to produce some information about how many “tips” have be offered by City employees, and how many of these “tips” have borne fruit.

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