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Ethics code would improve democratic process

Published Oct. 9, 2005

Values are the principles by which we live. Ethics are the rules by which we apply values to day-to-day decisions. Decisions often are not easy, clear choices between right and wrong.

"Thou shalt not kill" is a nearly universal value. Still, few would fail to kill if it was necessary to protect a child's life from an attacker. The ethic makes the value practicable in the real world.

The political world that I recently entered has values cherished by most Americans. Voters and elected representatives alike believe the will of the people must drive government decisions, that the people are the resource with the real-life experience and common sense to give birth to the best decision, if invited in and asked. That decision should be made in the open, after full, fair discussion.

These values add up to a process called democracy. The public's involvement is respected and invited, the public is informed, improving its qualifications to select leaders and its ability to instruct representatives once elected. This process builds a competent, involved electorate and ensures a responsive elected leadership. Better voters, elections and decisions are the fruits of these democratic values.

Decisions faced by elected politicians are not always easy, clear choices between right and wrong. Much of government's real decisionmaking work is done by staff people with special, professional and technical knowledge. The nature and quality of their recommendations must frame our decisions. Our attorneys often weigh in with advice that is weighty in its significance. We are lobbied back and forth by all sorts of people interested in the decisions.

The fruits of our democratic values come from the process of democracy. If the public doesn't care, is uninformed or doesn't vote, less-qualified candidates win elections and govern. Even the most qualified representative is free to give less weight to public welfare in any given decision. If the public cares, is informed and does vote, decisions will be made carefully, based on appropriate concerns and after responsible considerations.

Government decisionmaking can be a game of smoke and mirrors. Issues can be managed and spun to minimize public understanding, to short-circuit public involvement. This is not unknown in Washington or Brooksville. A cycle of cynicism feeds itself, with the public not trusting the elected and the elected not respecting the public's ability to understand and endorse the right choices.

I am asked, and resentfully challenged by some, why an ethics ordinance? What are the specifics? Why propose such a thing now? What is the need?

Ethics rules serve as standards both to guide decisionmakers and, because the values served create a process, to alert the public when something is amiss with that process. I have ideas of what an ethics ordinance should look like, but the specifics should properly emerge through the very process the specifics would serve to protect: the democratic process.

I propose the need for an ethics ordinance now in part because, to my knowledge, there are no ongoing ethics scandals in county government. Commissioners and the public are free to enact the best code, free from the heat of ongoing controversy.

There is a need for an ethics code because too much of the electorate is too cynical about our local democracy and because the opportunity and temptation to window-dress issues for public consumption is too available within government. By enacting standards we can set down boundaries, which, when crossed, will alert the press and public that something is amiss with our process. Without these public standards, the knowing, fatigued eyes of reporters see the process as amiss, yet the press has no reason to report it to a disinterested public.

I do not mean to be rash with this proposal for an ethics ordinance. Nor do I mean to offend anyone. But an ethics ordinance was one of my campaign promises because I believed it would improve our county. I still believe so and will work to encourage our entire county political process to produce an ethics code.

I encourage every citizen to pitch in. Your support for the code will make or break it. I am thought of as alone in this campaign. Show my colleagues otherwise. They respect your voice, when they hear it.

In the fall, the county administrator promises to have representatives of the state Ethics Commission visit the county. A code for county staff is being developed. A comprehensive, integrated code for both commissioners and staff will be better.

I do realize I am in for a long haul on this one, but I am going to keep at it. Eventually the voice of the public will make the difference. Your voice in support of adopting a code will be an act of faith in our common values.

Ultimately, the public must want a code to protect its democratic process or no code will come.

Pat Novy is a Hernando County commissioner.