Good Governance Floats on a Sea of Integrity
By: Gary Schons
“In civilized life, law floats in a sea of ethics,” the late Earl Warren, who served as a U.S. Supreme Court chief justice and as California attorney general and governor, stated in a 1962 speech. In a closely related sense, good governance floats on a sea of integrity. Only when government institutions abide by the norms of public integrity established by our laws and traditions can good governance take root and flourish.
When we speak of public integrity, foremost are qualities of individual virtue, undivided loyalty, transparency and accountability. Only when these principles are maintained by the individuals who serve will government institutions function with economy, efficiency and effectiveness. And when those virtues fail or cease to exist, waste, fraud, abuse, mismanagement and even corruption eventually corrode the processes of governing.
After an election that ushered in a host of new public officials and laws at the national, state and local levels, it is an appropriate time to reflect on the preeminence of integrity in our public institutions.
A recent survey conducted at Chapman University in Orange, revealed that people’s greatest fear is government corruption. At first blush, this seems surprising given the risks and harms posed by international terrorism, climate change and environmental degradation or economic disruption. But, on second thought, it is an understandable reaction. Individuals create their government through the ballot box, fund it through their taxes and are served and controlled by it in their daily lives. Government is constant and omnipresent in the lives of all citizens. Trust in its proper workings is fundamental to the social compact in which citizens cede certain of their freedoms, liberty and property to the state.
California is blessed with a public integrity infrastructure that is second to none in the country. In surveys of the states for public integrity practices, California consistently ranks at the top. The Political Reform Act and Government Code section 1090, which prohibit conflicts of interest, seek to ensure that government agencies have the undivided loyalty of its officials, in addition to promoting transparency in the political process. The Brown Act “Open Meetings” Law and the Public Records Act promote transparency and accountability by affording the public (and press) open access to government meetings and public records.
However, these laws alone are not self-executing and are no guarantee the goals they serve will be achieved. They must be put into regular practice and enforced. A robust system of checks and balances among the various organs of government provides the architecture for enforcement. The FPPC, the local prosecutor, the county grand jury exercising its civil “watch dog” function, and the State Auditor each serve important roles in monitoring, ensuring compliance with and sanctioning those violate these statutes.
However, the single most important guarantor of public integrity is an engaged citizenry informed by a principled press.
Case after case of local government malfeasance have come in communities where the citizens are not engaged and watchful of the processes of local governance. In such circumstances, open meeting laws are violated and “backroom” deals and decisions are made. Officials act despite clear conflict of interests. And, inevitably, mismanagement, abuse, fraud and corruption permeates the governing processes. This leads to massive losses to the public fisc, diminished public services and, eventually, a loss of public trust and faith in the governing entity. Thus, citizen participation is critical not just on Election Day, but on an on-going basis as the ultimate watch dog of official probity, transparency and accountability.
In a future installment of the Ethics Advisor, we will examine some case studies of failed governance directly attributable to lack of oversight and enforcement of public integrity norms and laws.
Gary Schons heads the Government Policy & Public Integrity practice. He served as trial counsel for the Commission on Judicial Performance.
Gary is an active member of the California District Attorneys Association, lecturing and authoring articles for the association.
Gary.Schons@BBKLaw.com (619) 525-1348