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GUEST COMMENTARY: Time for bold action on ethics
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GUEST COMMENTARY: Time for bold action on ethics

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In the bad old days, corrupt local officials just stole money or accepted bribes. We still have too much of that in Northwest Indiana. But some of today’s bad actors may even be worse, disdainful of their position’s duties, disrespectful of public decency and in short behaving in profoundly unethical ways.

What a horrible example they set. They dishonor their fellow elected officials. They let down ordinary public employees who come to work every day and perform their public duties with skill and dedication. These bad actors frustrate and embarrass the general public and increase cynicism about public service.

How can anyone defend the actions of a public official who rarely shows up at his office and allegedly uses his extra free time to abuse his female companion? Or who thinks it right for a public official who may have acted in vigilante fashion, to chase down a teenager whom he thinks might have stolen his car, then confines the youth, holds a gun to his head and demands a confession? Or who wouldn’t wonder about the lack of self-control of a public official who is said to have used her automobile to run another woman off the road in an apparent love triangle?

These alleged behaviors are not acceptable for anyone, let alone elected officials. Yet they have all happened in recent weeks.

Twenty-four communities are members of the Shared Ethics Advisory Commission, an all-volunteer organization that organizes ethics training for public employees. The vast majority of public employees want to do the right thing and they have told us they appreciate training on how to ethically reason through real life situations they face. But if some of their elected bosses keep acting irresponsibly, what credibility does ethics training have?

Training by the Ethics Commission is certainly a necessary component for establishing an ethics culture. People need to know what is expected of them. Through the use of realistic case studies, Commission ethics training provides them with practical guidance.

But the Commission has no enforcement powers. Elected officials are not even required to join their employees in ethics training, though many do so voluntarily.

Clearly more is needed. The legislature could mandate ethics training for all local government officials and employees. This would be helpful, but not enough.

The State of Indiana has an Inspector General. However, that position only deals with departments and agencies at the state level. We urge the legislature to consider either expanding the Inspector General’s jurisdiction to include local government or create a similar independent position at the county level with authority to investigate, conduct due process hearings, issue reports, and in appropriate cases, censure or refer offending officials to the criminal justice system. Perhaps other ideas would emerge if the legislature undertook a serious search for solutions.

It’s time to make a greater commitment to ethical behavior. The volunteers who oversee the Shared Ethics Advisory Commission can only do so much. It should be obvious that more is needed.

Dan Klein is president of the Shared Ethics Advisory Commission and Cal Bellamy is the commission’s president emeritus. The opinions are the writers'.

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