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The importance of ethics in government

May 8, 2013

Since taking office in 2012, the new mix of Sullivan County legislators has been working hard to improve government fiscal accountability by reining in expenses, ferreting out waste and redundancy, and by trying to deliver more value to citizens for the taxes they pay.

Now the legislature is turning its attention to a different kind of accountability by proposing a new Sullivan County Ethics Law that would apply to county officials, employees and county-appointed boards of directors.

In general, government ethics cover a wide range of rules—from (obviously) proscribing corrupt behavior to the sometimes greyer area of conflict of interest, from guaranteeing transparency through open meetings to establishing standards for impartiality in government dealings.

The fundamental reason for having rules of conduct for government officials and employees, as well as mechanisms to address infractions, is to garner public trust. Such trust is important for a healthy representative democracy and for government’s ability to carry out society’s priorities.

One main element of the proposed law will be to give new powers of independent investigation to a reconstituted ethics board. (There has been no functioning ethics board since 2011.) We applaud this proposal.

Another goal of the proposed law appears to be addressing the problem and/or the perception of conflict of interest. Conflicts of interest occur when an officeholder puts his or her personal or financial interest ahead of the public interest. Conflicts of interest undermine trust.

It seems none of the legislators believes that there are currently any improprieties going on, but they feel that writing a new ethics law will underscore their goal of welcoming fresh air and sunshine into the halls of county government, and into the meeting rooms of county-appointed boards of directors. Fresh air and sunshine will be important as county government steps into the future.

Big challenges await us in the 21st century. As our local government and civic leaders look for ways to build a sound and sustainable economic future for Sullivan County, we believe that many of the old ways of doing things will not be sufficient to face the inevitable changes that lie ahead. New and creative ideas brought to the table by new players will be necessary to address both known and unknown problems that will arise—how to get by on smaller government budgets, how to prepare for and adapt to climate change, how to meet our future energy needs, how to improve our food security by building a local food economy, to name just a few examples.