Ethics in City Government the Focus of Recent Employee Training

By Jennifer Kuhn, Sr. Administrative Assistant, Human Resources

Recently, 53 City employees attended an ethics presentation by attorney Gary Vanek, the City’s ethics officer. This training was not triggered by a negative incident but was suggested by City auditors as a matter of best practice for all municipalities.  In today’s political world, it’s important that residents know that the City holds ethics in high regard and regularly educates our employees on our commitment to strong ethics.

Attorney Vanek’s presentation highlighted historical and recent case law that has impacted government employees, providing ethical guidelines. Mr. Vanek began by asking us to define the word “ethics,” which according to Black’s Law Dictionary relates to the moral obligation or standard of professional conduct. He offered a simplified understanding, which was “to do the right thing.” And reminded us that all civilized societies must have ethical rules and codes for conduct that citizens follow, or those societies will collapse.

It is the duty of all City employees to behave in an ethical manner and is a reasonable expectation from citizenry that we should fulfill this responsibility. Unfortunately, citizens in the State of Illinois have become suspicious of government employees because of a history of corrupt behavior. Some people with the title of public servants have turned out to be public serpents instead.

While it would be very desirable and convenient to have a single source where one could easily find an exhaustive code of ethics, no such book exists. Rather, Mr. Vanek pointed out that there is a patchwork of codes and standards derived from several sources such as the criminal code, the Illinois municipal code, and from mandates from the Illinois attorney general’s office based upon case law.

Mr. Vanek informed our group that all city employees, not just elected officials, are subject to ethics rules like official misconduct and gift bans. Also, all employees need to be aware of conflicts of interest. That is, employees cannot have personal involvement in a business or other initiative if they have public responsibilities that could influence that business.

We learned that ignorance is not bliss when it comes to ethics violations; just because an employee had good intentions or was not aware of a particular law does not exempt that person from the consequences of breaking it. Attorney Vanek stated that if an employee or elected official inadvertently violated a tenant he or she was not aware of then addressing it right away and determining the corrective action was imperative.

In a caring community where school children and citizens bring heartfelt thank you gifts (under $75 of course) to our first responders, it’s important to remember the spirit of the law and for employees to be grateful for the support we receive from our community. That’s why understanding the spirit of the law and knowing the exceptions to the laws is also important.

The good news is that employees from the City of St. Charles have many resources for specific questions about whether a decision or activity has ethical ramifications. Discussions with supervisors, contacting the HR office, city administrator or mayor, or utilizing Gary Vanek’s expertise are just some of them. Section 2.44 of the City of St. Charles’ Municipal Code spells out the City’s ethics requirements. In general asking ourselves, “What is the right thing to do?” will often point us in a good direction, and utilizing our available resources will keep us moving as we seek to be true public servants.