By Robert Haugh
City Attorney Glen Googins led a 3.5-hour special City Council training meeting on October 26th. The agenda focused on “California’s Open Meetings Laws and Ethics Requirements: Training and Discussions on Transparency and Good Conduct for Public Officials in Compliance with AB1234.”
We asked Ethicist Dr. Tom Shanks about the meeting.
Why did Santa Clara conduct in-person training?
Since 2005, California law (AB1234) has required two hours of ethics training every other year for City Council, Boards and Commission members who receive stipends or expense reimbursements from the City, some City staff, and other local officials. The training can be either in-person or online.
The online option has been favored recently, but last October’s Grand Jury report raised serious concerns about the effectiveness of the City’s ethics training program and recommended additional annual training for the City Council.
The Council rejected that recommendation last December, but at its July 12, 2023 discussion about an independent ethics commission, the Council did vote to go ahead with the required AB1234 training and to do it in-person. Last week’s training was a great opportunity to reboot the City’s ethics program or, at the very least, to recommit the City Council and Senior City staff to ethical leadership, good governance, and public trust.
Unfortunately, none of that happened.
What did the City Attorney say about the City’s Code of Ethics & Values?
The good news is that the City Attorney included the City’s Code of Ethics & Values in the training. The City’s previous award-winning Ethics training Program died a few years ago and the Ethics Code seemed to have been on life-support.
He contrasted these ethics guiding principles with formal rules of the law, but didn’t clarify the relationship between the two. Twenty-five years ago, during the Code development process, the City decided to see laws as minimum standards, how we must act. Ethics core values and behavioral standards are the higher level principles–how we ought to act to earn and sustain public trust.
Both are required.
Did the training address any of the ethics issues raised by the Grand Jury Report, the public, or you?
Mr. Googins did not address the City’s ethics problems or ethically-questionable leadership behaviors. Unfortunately, he included a slide (below) that provides a ready-made justification for bad behavior, just what the City doesn’t need now: He encourages public officials to avoid the appearance of impropriety (as they should) but then immediately suggests that if they don’t feel like they are being influenced by personal interests, there’s no need to step aside.
The decision to step aside should have nothing to do with what the official feels. Rather, it should focus on the public’s perception of the decision-maker’s independence, impartiality, and accountability, and the likely impact of those perceptions on public trust.
Does this apply to the SF Chronicle story about the City officials signing an “Information Sharing” agreement with FIFA?
Absolutely. If the City Manager and City Attorney have already signed this agreement, they obviously “feel” there was no problem signing what many reasonable people will see as an “information blocking” agreement that does not benefit the public. This, of course, will only raise more questions about the Stadium Authority Board and staff’s commitment to serving the public’s best interests and acting as the people’s representative rather than the team’s employees.
To build, rather than damage, public trust, Santa Clara City officials need to explain how this information blocking agreement fulfills their fiduciary duty to serve only the best interests of the public. How exactly do the public benefits of nondisclosure outweigh the public benefits of disclosure? Why is this the right thing to do for the public?
This is a complicated legal question, I’m sure, but certainly worth the public’s time and attention.
What were the key takeaways from the meeting?
By the end of the 3.5 hour session, I was reminded of the old Woody Allen story: He took a speed-reading course and then read Tolstoy’s 1,125-page War and Peace in 20 minutes. When they asked him what it was about, he said, “Russia.”
When asked what this training was about, we might be similarly tempted to say, “Ethics laws.” Mr. Googin’s “Concluding Thoughts” slide (above) reminds us that this training was really about the ethical leadership habits we need to practice every day to earn and keep the public’s trust. Without public trust, democracy dies.