RICH JAMES: Lame excuse to avoid ethics issue is unethical

2014-01-05T00:00:00Z RICH JAMES: Lame excuse to avoid ethics issue is unethicalBy Rich James nwitimes.com
January 05, 2014 12:00 am  • 

It was some eight years ago when it seemed government across Northwest Indiana – particularly Lake County – had reached an ethical low.

Rep. Pete Visclosky saw it and asked local government – especially Lake County governmental units – to open themselves to scrutiny. A few did. Most refused.

It was about the same time when Cal Bellamy formed the Shared Ethics Advisory Commission and asked governmental units in Lake, Porter and LaPorte counties to join. Some did. Most didn’t.

The code has 32 planks on how officeholders and employees should act in terms of honesty, civility, accountability and fairness. Roll those into a ball, and you spell ethics.

Given the history of questionable practices and public corruption in this corner of the state, one would think every town, city and county governmental unit would have jumped at the chance to put its best foot forward and embrace ethics.

Shoot, it would have been the ethical thing to do.

Therein is the problem. Too many communities thought they were holier than thou and refused to join.

Bellamy said nonmember communities said their employees didn’t need ethical training because they already are as ethical as they can get, and besides, they only hire people with common sense.

Therein is another problem. We aren’t born ethical; it is something learned.

Let’s give credit to those who have joined the commission – Crown Point, Dyer, East Chicago, Gary, Highland, Hobart, Lowell, Munster, Schererville, Whiting and LaPorte County.

But, there isn’t a governmental unit in Porter County that has gotten on board. And we all know they aren’t as pure as the driven snow, although some seem to think they are.

This brings us back to Lake County, where the meaning of ethical depends on whom you ask.

While the majority of the folks in Lake County government wouldn’t think about taking a nickel they didn’t earn, there are those always looking for a deal on the side. And the sad part is they too often don’t think they are doing anything wrong.

It was about a month ago that Bellamy went back to a meeting of the Lake County Council, hoping to get them into the fold. And the results were the same as prior invitations.

It wasn’t a matter of council members saying training on ethics wasn’t needed.

No, council attorney Ray Szarmach told councilmen that while the code had many admirable traits, it was too vague for the county to adopt as law and survive a constitutional challenge.

I really don’t think anyone expects the Shared Ethics Advisory Commission to one day have to defend itself before the Supreme Court.

Ethics is about learning right from wrong. A lame excuse to avoid the issue is, well, unethical.

Rich James has been writing about state and local government and politics for more than 30 years. Email him at rjames@219.com. The opinions are the writer’s.

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