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Thursday September 18th 2014

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League discusses ethics in local government

By Jessica Forbes

League of Women Voters, UWF Professor Discuss Ethics in Local Government

During a recent presentation to the local League of Women Voters, Dr. Nicholas Power of UWF’s Department of Philosophy concluded that state and local leaders “Need training in ethics for a lot more than [the required] four hours,” joking, “They need to come to UWF and get a degree in Philosophy.”

The plug for his department came after his more serious summation that in a democratic society such as the United States, “What we really need is much more informative, less procedural understanding of fairness, justice, and responsibility.”

Power’s presentation to the League of Women Voters of the Pensacola Bay Area (LWVPBA) was one in an ongoing series of “Hot Topics” luncheons the LWVPBA organizes to address topics relevant to current events in government.

A non-partisan organization that focuses on voter service and education, LWVPBA has focused on the study of ethics in local government as one of its program items over the past year.

Ethics and Reform

As outgoing LWVPBA co-president Dr. Rosemary Hays-Thomas explained when introducing Power, last year, the U.S. Department of Justice identified Florida as having the highest number of Federal public corruption convictions in the country between 2000 and 2010. Making the topic timelier, Governor Rick Scott signed two bills into law on May 1, 2013 that were the first ethics reform measures passed in Florida in over 30 years.

Though its ability to levy fines for ethics violations was expanded, the State Commission on Ethics cannot initiate investigations on its own, but only hears claims that are submitted through and deemed credible by one of four state agencies. Of the ethics commission’s nine members, five can be appointed and removed at will by the majority political party.

“If I had to write friendly amendments to that law,” Power commented during the discussion, “it would need to make that Ethics Commission more independent and not beholden to the folks who put them in office. That goes straight to integrity—that’s the chickens being watched by the foxes.”

Among other sticking points for critics of the recent reforms, the legislation allows lawmakers to place investments (including real estate) in blind trusts to avoid conflicts of interest when developing and passing legislation, and allows state officials who have been found to submit inaccurate financial disclosure documents 30 days to make corrections before being fined, what some are calling a “get out of jail free card.”

Despite—and even in light of—criticism of the reform bills, Power emphasized that the foundations of the U.S. government provide “some of the most transparent governmental structures and safeguards in the world,” regarding cynical tone of many public discussions of politics a “poison” and “unjustified.”

To his broader point on integrity in politics, Power emphasized that the action of integrity is not explicit in its name; meaning, most everyone recognizes what virtues such as mercy and compassion look like when acted out, but an act of integrity is somewhat more subjectively identified—tough in a business (politics) in which lawyers and legalistic interpretations of policy dominate.

“Sometimes integrity demands that we reject what conventional thinking does,” said Power, giving the example of the Supreme Court’s Brown v. Board of Education ruling, which reversed its previous and long accepted stance on constitutionality of segregation. “You have to be critical to have integrity, not just consistent.”

When Philosophy and Politics Meet

The May 10 luncheon was the first time Power presented to the LWVPBA, but he later said, “I speak whenever I can, and consider it part of a scholar’s duty, but only if I have some relevant expertise in an area.”

Power—who teaches courses including Social and Political Philosophy and Philosophy of Sex and Love—has most recently presented in the program “A Panel Discussion on the Laws Regarding Sex Offenders” with the PSC Philosophy Club, spoken on the harms of pornography to a student group at Jacksonville University, and led teacher workshops on philosophy for children.

Though he has occasionally worked with local governments, Power has found “Public employers are under-funded, and their employees are busy, often with training on particular ‘code of ethics’ and on how to comply with the Sunshine Laws, and so forth.”

Asked if he would be interested in continuing work or possibly establishing a forum on ethics with local officials, Power stated, “Integrity and the other virtues required of public officers run deeper than a statute, or code of ethics, and the faculty and programs at UWF are an under-utilized resource. I know I would be interested in chipping in.”

For additional information on the League of Women Voters of the Pensacola Bay Area, including monthly general meetings and Hot Topics events, visit lwvpba.org.