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A Publication of WTVP

In this month, we will hold an election in Peoria to choose five candidates out of 10 to serve on the City Council. We use a cumulative voting system—so five candidates each can receive a voter’s selection, one candidate can receive all five votes from one person or some combination in between. In other communities and in other races, a candidate receives one vote. This system is different than the one in which I grew up in Chicago, where a candidate’s slogan might have been, “Vote early, vote often.”

The ballot box is a tangible way to demonstrate to candidates that we are entrusting them to represent us—all of us. Even more, they are using funds that do not belong to them, and that are being held in trust for the public. The office-holders make decisions that will benefit the largest number of people in the community or, in reverse, to harm the fewest number of people possible. City officials are to further the public interest, not just their own interests. Sometimes office-holders have very strong opinions about matters, which help them to win an election victory. Even so, at a minimum they are to listen carefully to many points of view in their geographic area.

Not all officials are elected. In Peoria (and in many other communities), they are appointed by the mayor, a council or board committee, or by a state or federal official. I served for four years as a trustee of the Greater Peoria Mass Transit District (which became CityLink). I was one of two trustees from the City of Peoria appointed by Mayor Bud Grieves and ratified by the city council. I never held public office before then, and I had to learn quickly what the position required and how I could be the most effective trustee possible. I was going to say I had a crash course on serving the public with the transit district board, but that never was a good phrase to use while in that office!

At CityLink, we did not make up our own ethics code by which we could hold office and make decisions. We adhered to the Illinois Government Officials Act, passed by the General Assembly in November 2003 and administered by the Illinois attorney general. You can read it for yourself at www.cyberdriveillinois.com. At the attorney general’s web site, www.illinoisattorneygeneral.gov/government, there is also a Model Ethics Ordinance for governments and elected officials.

Ethics in holding office involves three main areas of concern. First, there must be no conflict of interest between one’s own activities and the decisions that one must make in office. Most of the time, the conflict can be economic—my business can benefit from decisions in which I am involved. It can also involve groups with which I am involved. For example, I have been a church pastor. If I held office, I would have to abstain from voting on matters that affected the life and work of the local church.

The second area of ethics in public office surrounds influence— particularly people who may be trying to influence or compel our voting patterns. That’s what lobbyists do. Sometimes the offers from lobbyists can be financial—a gift (cash or otherwise), a promise of a great job or election to a higher office. These offers are delivered in exchange for a positive vote.

The third area of ethics involves personnel. As an elected or appointed official, I have to be able to separate my personal relationships from my working relationships. It is an ethical violation— and can interfere with other beliefs depending on your moral and religious background—to have a romantic or sexual involvement with an employee who is affected by the decisions you make as an elected official.

In short, ethics in public office means that one has enough maturity to understand that policy-making and decision-making go far beyond personal interest, or even personal opinion. An officeholder has to look at the larger picture. He or she cannot become lazy or indifferent or find judgment clouded by personal feelings. Otherwise, the officeholder at the least is dangerously subjective or narrow-minded or, at worst, acting illegally.

Finally, holding an office requires some orientation. Sometimes people run for office or push for an appointment to present a certain agenda, whether one’s own agenda or that of a particular group. I found that I had to go through some orientation and do a lot of listening before choosing where to exercise leadership and express opinions and ideas. We do not have “Public Office Schools” where we can learn about the ethics and practices of holding public trust. But we have laws and wise mentors who can help us to become effective in government and behave ethically— for the good of the people. IBI

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