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Tuesday, May 09, 2006 | If you are confused about the functions of the city’s various ethics training and enforcement offices, you aren’t alone. And if you had the patience to watch or listen to Friday’s budget hearings for enlightenment, you probably came away even more confused.

I think the problem is that each of these agencies is trying so hard to explain themselves in technically correct jargon, that they leave the rest of us behind. So I’m going to attempt to cut through the ethics-speak to explain it as I understand it – fully aware that I am probably going to miss some technical nuances here and there.

For me, it’s easiest to think about this in terms of the rules that govern driving.

I would like to drive safely and I understand that safe driving not only prevents me from hurting others, but also prevents others from hurting me or my family. We can’t each set our own rules, however, so I look to the government to tell me such things as what should happen when four cars all show up at an uncontrolled intersection at the same time.

It also makes sense to have enforcement of those bright-line rules. If someone exceeds the speed limit, they should get a ticket. If you violate the rules, there are consequences.

Now, if it turns out that the rule you broke actually resulted in physical harm to someone or if you broke the rule willfully, then you may receive more punishment than just a ticket. Other parts of the legal system may become involved.

In San Diego, we have specific governmental ethics laws. For the most part, those laws involve the public reporting of financial relationships and transactions. They tell us what sorts of things need to be publicly reported and when and how to go about reporting them. The rules cover candidates, public officials and the people who lobby those public officials.

The job of the Ethics Commission is twofold. First, they educate the people who are supposed to comply with these rules. Second, they hand out tickets when the rules are broken.

The City Attorney gets in the act when the Ethics Commission refers a matter to him for criminal investigation. This might happen in a case where the Commission believes someone really intended to violate the law and/or went out of his or her way to hide a violation.

It seems to me that bright-line rules work best when people have an inherent desire to do the right thing and just need to know which set of rules we are all following. But it is also true that some people, for whatever reason, either don’t have those same human values or have lost touch with them. That is why some violators of traffic laws are sent to classes where they are shown graphic photographs from car accidents and interviews with people who have lost loved ones as the result of reckless driving. It is an attempt to awaken or re-awaken the part of a person that wants to do the “right” thing. That function appears to be the primary role of the Office of Ethics and Integrity as envisioned by the mayor. She will be creating an ethical benchmark, somehow measuring individual and organizational integrity against that benchmark and then creating training courses designed to educate those who don’t meet the standards.

Just to be clear, none of this discussion includes the city’s Equal Employment Opportunity program which has its own budget, staffing, etc. There is no plan to include it in the Office of Ethics and Integrity.

Apparently, the Mayor is also interested in adding some house rules of his own, over and above the actions required by law. This would be akin to my house rule of no food in the car (not only messy, but also distracting). City employees will be required to abide by these house rules. The Office of Ethics and Integrity will enforce them. The Ethics Commission has, by the way, rightly declined to be involved with enforcement of house rules. Its job is to enforce the actual law. It’s going to become truly unwieldy and confusing if they attempt to enforce both.

Yes, there truly are three distinct functions. The city attorney, the Ethics Commission and the Office of Ethics and Integrity each have their own role. And yes, staff is correct when they say that they should not be combined. In fact, I find it problematic that the Office of Ethics and Integrity may be planning to use city attorney investigators to determine whether or not the house rules have been broken.

The City Council has some decisions to make. In these times when basic services (e.g. filling potholes) are not being provided, do they really want to spend $1.5 million on the types of measurement and training that will be provided by the Office of Ethics and Integrity?

This is a difficult public discussion to have. If you don’t support the proposal, you run the risk of appearing to oppose ethics and integrity. But if the mayor is truly encouraging plain talk, then the council must be free to have this conversation without their own integrity being questioned.

April Boling is an accountant. She was the vice chairwoman of the Blue Ribbon Committee on City Finances and was later president of the San Diego County Taxpayers Association. Agree? Disagree? Send a letter to the editor.

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