Getting Good, Trustworthy Information: A City Council Member Talks about Ethics

We all know how difficult it can be to have an honest conversation with members of certain professions. Two examples come immediately to mind: corporate chieftains and politicians. We think this is especially true when the honest conversation we all wish for--is about ethics and some of the ethical dilemmas corporate execs and elected officials commonly face in their work.    

That is why our conversation with Ann Arbor City Council member Steve Kunselman (D-Ward 3) is particularly noteworthy. It is not that we uncovered any City Hall secrets. This is not an "insider" conversation. It is just an hour well spent with a local political representative--whose useful experience also included serving on Sumpter Township's city staff--talking about where his elected official work cuts across ethics topics and how he tries to call these issues as he sees them.

This meant that we briefly covered questions of impartial and independent city appointments and conflicts of obligation; a politician's responsibility to be fair; establishing civil relationships with other council members and constituents with very different views on governance and the issues; determining the circumstances when what's legal and what's ethical diverge; and defending and defining clear ideas about the public trust. Finally, we considered, from a few angles, the perennial problem of renewing and sustaining trust itself, which as Council member Kunselman sees it--is mostly about getting good, trustworthy information--that is honest enough to make good decisions that give the public reason to trust.  

We appreciate and agree with what Council member Kunselman believes are common ethics issues faced by many local city council members. And we think his efforts to openly discuss ethics problems as he sees them are exceptional and necessary for building a good ethics environment for city government. But we also think a good ethics environment is just a first step in renewing and sustaining trust and an honest relationship with the public. As we see it, Ann Arbor city elected officials should present to the public for discussion--a city ethics policy--one that includes some formal training for officials beyond taking the oath of public office.  

What and where are the models? During our conversation, Council member Kunselman wonders whether there are any cities with what he considered, 'Golden Rule' ethics policies. Fair enough: he is asking for good, trustworthy  information that is honest enough for decision-making.

And we have a few ideas to share. In our view, the best place to get trustworthy information on good city ethics policies is by examining the work of a nonprofit, local government ethics group called City Ethics. City Ethics research director, Robert Wechsler is--if not the gold standard and the 'Golden Rule' too, then a gold mine of information about local government ethics matters in the U.S. Further, he has written a book, Local Government Ethics Programs, that all local officials should read, and that listeners of A2Ethics podcasts might want to look at.  And to learn more about local issues with ethics implications and consequences, there are several city media to turn to: CTN, the city cable channel which includes broadcasts of Ann Arbor City Council meetings; the transcript-like, comprehensive coverage of city government provided by The Ann Arbor Chronicle; the reporting and updates of annarbor.com and The Michigan Daily; and the investigative and opinion journalism of A2Politico, which routinely provides views about ethics topics as its staff sees them.

Like Council member Kunselman, we are all just trying to get good, trustworthy information that allows us make honest enough decisions about issues that we believe impact our city.