There's often a yawning gap between political rhetoric and reality. But there's never been more pressure on the Memphis City Council for the two to meet as in the area of ethics reform.
To comply with a state mandate, the Council must adopt new ethics rules by the end of June. Even without the state's urging, ethics would be on city government's agenda in the wake of well-publicized federal probes and well-traveled rumors about various conflicts of interest.
In 1999, when the City Council last wrote ethics rules, the rhetoric far outstripped the results. In the end, its members approved rules that had no real teeth or consequences for violations.
All of that may change. Council Chairman Tom Marshall set ethics reform as the top issue for his one-year term and recruited Councilman Jack Sammons to head up a committee drafting model ethics rules for city government.
Sammons and his ethics committee counterpart on the Shelby County Board of Commissioners, Mike Ritz, have even been working together to pursue the boldest goal of all -- to change a culture that they believe erodes the public's confidence in their local government.
Some political observers say that it can't be done. Events in Atlanta prove them wrong.
Only a few years ago, Atlanta was rocked by a federal investigation into bribery and payoffs that eventually went all the way to the mayor's office. In the end, more than a dozen city contractors, senior city officials, and even Mayor Bill Campbell himself were convicted of multiple bribery and corruption charges.
Atlanta turned this national black eye into something positive. The call for change led to the election of Shirley Franklin as mayor in 2002, and through force of her personality, she immediately pushed through new ethics rules that were unimaginable only a short time before.
As recently as last year, she proved that she hasn't taken her eye off the ball, vetoing a resolution by the Atlanta City Council to relax her Code of Ethics to allow its members to accept gifts and gratuities worth less than $75. Here, Mayor Willie W. Herenton seems to be letting the Council do the heavy lifting on ethics reform, but as Mayor Franklin proves, there's no substitute for mayoral leadership.
Council leaders have set an ambitious goal -- to pass model ethics rules. If that's to happen, they'll include rules that other cities are using, such as:
• Prohibiting any business relationship with local government or its agencies.
• Prohibiting representation by a Council member of a client before a governmental agency.
• Prohibiting the acceptance of gifts or gratuities.
• Disclosing any family member who engages in a transaction with local government that involves a contract, zoning, liquor license, or grant funds.
• Disclosing any relationship or actions between family members and local government and its agencies and prohibiting Council members from voting, participating, or discussing any decision involving these agencies.
• Disclosing outside employers.
• Prohibiting travel, meals, or gifts from people lobbying city government
• Prohibiting Council members from representing anyone before a local government agency for 18 months after leaving office.
• Disclosing any financial or ownership interest by a Council member or family members in a company doing business with local government.
• Prohibiting the use of city employees or city property for business or political gain, including using them to organize political rallies, soliciting contributions, or preparing campaign material.
• Disclosing ownership of any stocks in a company doing business with city government.
• Prohibiting the use of confidential information for financial benefit by the member or family.
And yet, Atlanta learned that ethics aren't just about rules. They're also about enforcement. That's why the creation of an Office of Public Ethics is almost as important as the rules themselves.
When Mayor Franklin accepted an award five months ago for her advocacy for ethics, she said: "When I was elected, I was determined to raise the bar on ethics in city government, to reclaim the public trust and confidence in city government, and to create an environment of openness and integrity. I am honored to be recognized for what I believe is simply working hard to do the right thing."
It sums up the importance of the work being done here. Mayor Franklin has received national attention for what she's done in Atlanta -- eliminating an $82 million budget deficit, dealing with a growing homeless population, setting in motion a plan to maintain streets that had been ignored for eight years, ending a $20,000-a-day fine from state and federal agencies for leaking sewers, reducing the payroll by 1,000 people, and cutting her own salary by $40,000.
Despite all that she's been able to accomplish, she would sum it up this way: It all begins with strong ethics rules.