Thursday, July 10, 2014

We can’t afford an ethics quibble

March 08. 2013 6:40AM

By - - (570) 991-6112

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As in: Luzerne County politicians have clearly proven themselves ethically challenged (see “Kids for Cash” judge convictions, “Pay to teach” school board convictions, and all those other crooks caught in the federal corruption probe).

As in: It took three tries before county residents approved a new form of government through the “Home Rule” process. Why did home rule succeed in 2010 when it had been rejected twice earlier? While voters had their own varied reasons, it seems safe to say the numerous charges and convictions of county politicians in preceding years offered strong impetus for such dramatic reform.

As in: One of the most appealing aspects of the new form of government was and remains the creation of an ethics code and an ethics commission to police it. One of the simple and obvious aspects of the code was that those required to abide by it have to sign a form acknowledging as much.

Yet as a story in Wednesday’s Times Leader noted, more than a year after the new government began, nearly half the people required to sign the acknowledgement have not.

The ethics commission released a report outlining problems implementing the code.

Some have strong merit: A lack of funds to provide an attorney for someone who files a complaint if needed to push the complaint through the system; a conflicted process that tries to maintain confidentiality while complying with the state Right-to-Know rules.

Others sound easy to fix, such as Assistant District Attorney Jim McMonagle’s concern that the code wording needs to be specific when it refers to parts of the home rule charter.

And some sound like legal nitpicking, most notably McMonagle’s concern about a passage that says those who must abide by the code “are always expected to reflect on and serve what they believe to be in the public interest and not to serve personal interest and gain.”

“By what standard is it reviewed,” McMonagle wrote, “and who gets to decide that my decision, made in the moment, was not appropriate under the code?”

It is certainly appropriate that the ethics commission and county officials scrutinize the ethics code in an effort to make it work well. But they must not let the implementation of the code be delayed and degraded through endless quibbles.

Thanks to the FBI probe that nabbed more than 30 people, Luzerne County gained national notoriety for nurturing a “culture of corruption.” The failure to fully implement the ethics code after so much time sadly shouts out to the world that, when it comes to ethics, we still don’t get it.

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