Georgia’s state and local governments are more committed to protecting their citizens from possible unethical behavior of their public officials than the Romanian authorities. At the state level, Georgia has an Ethics Commission and ethics legislation in place. “It is declared to be the policy of the state to protect the integrity of the democratic process and to ensure fair elections; to institute and establish a requirement of public disclosure of campaign contributions and expenditures and to make sure that the state’s public affairs are best served by disclosures of significant private interests of public officers and officials which may influence the discharge of their public duties and responsibilities” (The Georgia Government Transparency and Campaign Finance Act of 2010).
What is more important though is that the Commission is actually investigating cases that can be seen online. I could search over 700 cases which ended in administrative dismissals, commission orders, compliance agreements, consent orders, or dismissals. Romania, on the other hand, has a national agency called “The National Agency for Integrity.” Apart from the big bureaucracy that is regulating it, one can hardly find 100 cases of investigations.
At a local level, it is notable to mention the outreach efforts of nonprofits that are urging local administrations to pass ethics legislation. Such a program is the “Certified Cities of Ethics Program,” run by Georgia Municipal Association and supported by a large number of organizations. The program emerged after concerns over a trend towards less confidence in public officials. Certification under this program is a way to recognize cities that have adopted principles and procedures that offer guidance on ethical issues, along with a mechanism to resolve complaints at the local level. To become cities of ethics, local administrations first need to adopt a resolution subscribing to five ethics principles:
- Serve others, not ourselves.
- Use resources with efficiency and economy.
- Treat all people fairly.
- Use the power of our position for the well-being of our constituents.
- And create an environment of honesty, openness and integrity.
Second, they need to pass an ordinance that contains definitions, an enumeration of permissible and impermissible activities by elected officials, due process procedures for elected officials charged with a violation of the ordinance and punishment provisions for elected officials who have been found in violation of the ordinance.
The program has already certified 226 cities, 3 counties and 5 organizations. It is a very good track record, although there is still much work to be done given that the State of Georgia has 159 counties and 624 cities and townships. In Romania, the behavior of the county and city council members is vaguely endorsed by the Charter of the County / Local Council: elected County / City Council officials have to conduct their activity with honor and correctness; it is forbidden for them to request money, goods or advantages. Council members also file a declaration of interests and a declaration of assets.
What is at stake? A lot of money. Here is some budget data for fiscal year 2011 in the State of Georgia and Romania. These budgets pay for our education, healthcare, security, transportation infrastructure, to name but a few. They provide the backbone of our lifestyle and for having better communities.
From my point of view, one of the greatest challenges to have stronger ethics legislation put in place is to raise awareness among citizens that ethics in government is important to their communities and to their increased standard of living. We need to find methods to engage them more effectively in the debate about ethics reform and give them stronger tools to put pressure on elected officials to pass ethics legislation. (Article published on Common Cause Georgia’s blog).