Ethics in Government: Charting the Right Course

Before beginning a discussion of ethics in municipal government, we must understand what ethics entails. Ethics by definition is: The discipline dealing with what is good and bad; a set of moral principles or values, the principles of conduct governing an individual or a group, a guiding philosophy based simply right and wrong.

The public rightfully expects its elected officials to conduct themselves with honesty and integrity. Working for the common good and representing democracy, demand these standards to function effectively.

Trust is the key word to describe the appropriate relationship between elected or appointed officials and their constituents. An elected official gains the privilege to serve only by earning the trust of a majority of the electorate. Each official must be careful not to compromise that trust in any way once he or she has been inducted into office.

The topic of open meetings and open records is one of central importance to the public’s perception of how government operates. (Freedom of speech). A government that functions in secrecy by meeting behind closed doors restricts public access to full information about its operations. Such actions alienate and discourage those citizens who wish to participate in the process. Therefore, it is the duty of the people to openly communicate between citizens and with their government. Simultaneously, provisions must be allowed for reasonable constraints where necessary for the efficient operation of government.

The occupation of public office requires the public’s trust. A fair balance of communication must be struck between protecting the integrity of government while maintaining transparency with the public. The people have responsibilities as well. They must stay informed and be vigilant. After all we “the people” are the protectors of our local government.

The duties of town officials may seem complex at first glance, but in reality they boil down to a single idea, that being fair representation of the public interest. The goal is to ensure that the public is fairly represented by themselves or a person whom they have freely chosen to do so.

This is both an honor and a burden, as ethics tend to constrain the personal actions of elected officials in many ways. A careful balance must be struck to encourage competent individuals to serve in public office. The problem of finding qualified citizens to hold office is exacerbated by many possible constraints: The simplest being those of time, work, family life, health, well-being, and happiness. The most complex may be experience or the possibility of conflict of interest. Ethics can allow for the optimal conflict-free action in the town while protecting the people from potential misuse of government. Additionally, voters should be allowed to raise their concerns and participate in town process at the every level. It is here where the voice and influence of the individual citizen is strongest. Preserving and encouraging local self-governance and accountability is critical to securing public participation in government and safeguarding our democratic institutions.

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