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Oct 27


Posted on October 27, 2010 at 4:42 PM by Troy Butzlaff

The wave of public corruption scandals at all levels of government is raising serious questions about the costs of misconduct of those who have been entrusted with guarding the public’s trust and resources. Beyond the obvious financial costs associated with these scandals, the escalating number of cases involving public corruption or allegations of public fraud has many people starting to question whether public institutions and public officials in particular can be trusted.

A recent survey by the Pew Research Center found that only 22 percent of Americans surveyed say they can trust government. Moreover the researchers found that an increasing number — almost 1 of every 3 people — say they believe government is a major threat to their personal freedoms and want federal power reined in. Rising criticism about government’s personal impact is not limited to the federal government alone. Just 42% of those surveyed say their state government has a positive effect on their daily lives, down from 62% in October 1997. There is a similar pattern in opinions about the impact of local government – 51% now see the impact of their local government as positive, down from 64% in 1997.

The great American statesman Henry Clay once wrote, “Government is a trust, and the officers of the government are trustees; and both the trust and the trustees are created for the benefit of the people." As a public servant or “trustee” I believe that I have an affirmative responsibility to uphold the public’s trust in everything I do. But really what does upholding the public’s trust mean? Well the simplest definition of public trust is the public's confidence in their public officials and the expectation the public has that these officials will faithfully perform their duties of public office. When a public official breaches the public’s trust by committing a deceitful or illegal act it can lead to inequality, wasted resources or public money and reputational damage.

While it is unlikely that we will ever see an end to public corruption scandals, public codes of ethics can play a crucial role in articulating the mission of public servants which in turn can reduce the incidents of public corruption. The City of Placentia has had a Code of Core Values and Ethics in place for several years now. The purpose of this Code is to set a standard of conduct for all elected officials, officers, employees, and members of advisory commissions and committees of the City to insure that Placentia is a better community, built on mutual respect and trust.

Imbedded in all ethics codes and codes of conduct, either implicitly or explicitly, are a set of core principles and values. These core principles and values are the elements that usually call the public servant to a greater purpose. This is not a new phenomenon, and many codes of conduct can be found throughout antiquity in the vast majority of cultures. Perhaps the most famous of these codes as it relates to public servants is The Athenian Oath. This oath was sworn by young men of ancient Athens upon induction into the Ephebic College, graduation from which was required to attain status as a citizen. The oath, as traditionally rendered in English, is as follows: 

  • We will never bring disgrace on this our City by an act of dishonesty or cowardice. 
  • We will fight for the ideals and Sacred Things of the City both alone and with many. 
  • We will revere and obey the City's laws, and will do our best to incite a like reverence and respect in those above us who are prone to annul them or set them at naught. 
  • We will strive increasingly to quicken the public's sense of civic duty. Thus in all these ways we will transmit this City, not only not less, but greater and more beautiful than it was transmitted to us.

I first heard about the Athenian Oath at a conference I attended while I was still in graduate school at the University of La Verne some twenty years ago. While the passage of time prevents me from remembering the purpose of the conference or the subject matters discussed, I do distinctly recall a presentation by a former police chief of Riverside, California on ethics and how he had embraced the core values of the Athenian Oath and applied it to his career in law enforcement. At first I thought what can a 2,000 year old oath given to young men in Athens, Greece teach me about public service and upholding the public’s trust. After further research I became more and more intrigued by the simplicity of the Athenian Oath and the powerful meaning it holds. Today the Athenian Oath serves as my personal mantra for how I conduct myself as a public official. I apply the core values of this oath not only in my approach to leadership, but it is an integral part of my decision making process to properly insure that in reaching a decision the public’s trust is upheld. I am such a believer in the importance of this Oath that I actively encourage my department heads and employees to apply it in their life as well.

British mathematician and philosopher Bertrand Russell once wrote, “Without civic morality communities perish; without personal morality their survival has no value.” While public confidence in government institutions and public officials certainly has been shaken by the multitude of public corruption scandals of late, anarchy is not around the corner and I am confident in the ability of government to win back the public’s trust once again. To do this government at all levels needs to take strong, swift, and decisive action to address the public corruption scandals and show the public that such acts of deceit and fraud will not go unpunished. Moreover, public officials need to end the pervasive perception that government is not transparent and accountable and that public officials are more interested in helping themselves than in serving the public good. I believe that public servants are generally well intentioned people and are dedicated to upholding the highest ethical standards. Have public servants done terrible things? Of course they have, but public servants are human just like you and are capable of lapses in judgment and making mistakes. Government agencies can reduce the likelihood of corruption or abuse by adopting codes of conduct for how elected officials, employees, and volunteers are expected to behave and what these public officials should consider when making decisions. Although I cannot guarantee that there won’t ever be a lapse in judgment or someone in my organization will never make a mistake, I want the community to know that their elected officials, employees, and volunteers are truly committed to the ideals of good government and will do everything in their power to guard the public’s trust.


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