Doing what's right when no one is looking

Webster's Dictionary defines ethics as a "system of conduct or behavior, moral principles." Ethics for the public official seems easy to understand: comply with the South Carolina Ethics, Government Accountability and Campaign Reform Act and you're done. Right? Not quite. While the Ethics Act is a great start toward ethical behavior, there is much more public officials can (and should) do to ensure they perform ethically.

The public holds government officials to a high standard, expecting them to govern and behave in an ethical manner. That expectation is often referred to as public trust. Officials must act ethically beyond that which is required by law.

The ethics law provides very clear cut rules to follow, i.e., recuse yourself from voting when there is a conflict of interest. Beyond the law, gray areas abound. When in doubt, officials should consult their municipal attorney.

Public officials must assess every decision - public or private - as to whether or not it will pass the front page (or home page of a website) test. How would your action/decision come across if it appeared on the local paper's front page, home page, Twitter feed or Facebook post? Would your action embarrass you or your city? Would you be comfortable discussing your decision with a local television reporter?

It may frustrate officials having to accept that even private decisions must be weighed against public perception, but that is the nature of public service. Thomas Jefferson once wrote, "When a man assumes a public trust, he should consider himself public property."

Ethical decision making and behavior may, on the surface, appear simple. However, they can be complicated and nuanced. What appears to be ethical under state law may not pass the front page test, which erodes public trust. The public expects its leaders to demonstrate a higher level of ethical behavior than others. Public officials should expect no less from themselves.

Scott Slatton, the Municipal Association's legislative and public policy advocate, spoke about ethical issues and considerations during a series of public official liability seminars sponsored by the SC Municipal Insurance and Risk Financing Fund. SCMIRF, a program of the Municipal Association, provides all lines of property and casualty coverage including tort liability for its member municipalities.