By Robert Haugh
1. Describe what you did for Santa Clara when you set up ethics programs and training from 1998-2015.
I developed the Code of Ethics and Values, working with Jennifer Sparacino and Carol McCarthy. Then, we created training programs for the Council, Commissioners, City staff, City employees, and political candidates. Much of our work, and the awards it won, are still on the City’s website. The United Nations considered our campaign ethics program one of the two best in the world. It was a great and fulfilling experience.
2. You wrote in a Mercury News opinion piece that you see in Santa Clara “the most egregious collapse of ethics of any institution I’ve worked with in three decades.” Can you explain why you wrote that and cite examples of what you think is so bad?
I see the majority of the Council violating virtually all of the core values in The Behavioral Standards for Council Members which we developed years ago and is on the City’s website. The Standards describe a Santa Clara council member at his or her best as an ethical, professional, fiscally responsible, organized, communicative, collaborative, and progressive person.
I heard Vice Mayor Suds Jain suggest that what’s legal is the only standard the Council should care about. He doesn’t understand that when it comes to public trust and ethics, the law is the floor, not the ceiling. The law is a minimal standard. At the end of the day if all we can say is “we didn’t break the law today,” we haven’t earned the public’s trust.
There’s no concern for transparency or fiscal responsibility. The most recent and egregious example of that is the 49ers legal settlement discussion. There was no information for the public to evaluate before or after the vote which happened only in closed session. It looks like they’re hiding from a bad deal. And Councilmembers Raj Chahal and Karen Hardy ignored requests for them to recuse themselves from the vote even though there’s a legitimate FPPC investigation into an allegation of them taking gifts from the team. If they cared about ethics and public trust, they would not have participated. But they seem completely unconcerned.
Finally, I don’t think I’ve seen anyone in Santa Clara City Hall ever mistreat the public and his colleagues the way I see Councilmember Anthony Becker do so. His behavior is not ethical, professional, or collaborative.
3. You also wrote that you see the same type of behavior in Santa Clara that happened in the City of Bell over a decade ago. Top City officials went to jail for political corruption. Is that a fair comparison?
Yes, it is a fair comparison. While there are differences between the two cities, there are remarkable similarities. Bell councilmembers fired their city manager and city attorney, so they eliminated checks and balances. The Santa Clara Council majority has done exactly that. The Bell Council communicated less and less with the public; served their own interests before the city’s; and had trouble hiring good city staff. That’s all happening in Santa Clara.
4. Do you think Santa Clara residents care that much about whether or not there’s ethical behavior at City Hall?
Someone told me when we started this project decades ago that the people of Santa Clara would pay attention only when a City-owned bulldozer was heading for the resident’s front door. Now, I hear people describing the 49ers’ dominance of local politics and the City Council as a bulldozer that’s headed for the St. Clare statue outside City Hall.
I regularly ask people in my workshops what the world looks like without ethics. Sometimes they mention cities known for political corruption. I’m afraid the answer to that question may be: “it looks like Santa Clara city government.” That would be truly sad given how much work good people contributed over many years.
5. You wrote that the 49ers have dominated Santa Clara politics since 2010. No one has really written that before. Why do you think you’re the first to say it?
Maybe because I’m looking at it from an ethicist’s perspective. I’m less concerned about who wins or loses elections than I am about how they are won or lost. The best way to tell how people will govern is to look at how they conduct their campaigns. Unethical campaigns lead to unethical government and they damage or destroy public trust.
The 49ers have not just won elections but they’ve changed the political dynamic of Santa Clara. Earlier Santa Clara elections were contentious but fundamentally honest contests. The team has spent millions of dollars since 2010 to deliver messages that are sometimes misleading and sometimes just false. Unfortunately, there are no checks and balances. The local media have done a poor job of telling this sad story of the demise of public trust. The Mercury News, for example, used to be strong on ethics and transparency but they either don’t understand what’s happening in Santa Clara or they have concerns about offending a major advertiser. Their recent editorial called the 49er contributions “troubling.” That was a major understatement. They also placed the responsibility on the elected officials, not the team. The San Francisco Chronicle has done some recent good reporting and they’ve become the paper of record for this larger story even though it’s technically not in their backyard.
6. What’s the mission of your new project Ethics in America?
The mission is to advocate for practical ethics, trustworthy leadership, and citizen engagement with government, especially local government.
My colleagues and I will comment regularly on what we see happening in American politics, government, and the media. We all have a role to play in restoring public trust. Without public trust, democracy dies.
Please visit EthicsForAmerica.com and sign up for the newsletter.
Editor’s Note: Dr. Tom Shanks is a nationally recognized ethicist and the former director of the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics at Santa Clara University.