November 30, 2012

Editorial: Government ethics progress


---- — It seems as if everybody is complaining about government these days. It’s corrupt: People involved in government for years, at one level of another, are facing the inside of a jail cell. It’s frozen: It’s so internally hostile that progress yields to gridlock.

Some of that is true, of course, and vigilance by the news media and the public is essential if we ever hope to take the stalemate and the cellmate out of government.

We ran an interesting item in our weekly Lookback on Monday that reminded us all that, in spite of what we see too frequently on the negative side of government, we have seen progress in at least some areas of the conduct of public business.

Here was the item, from 1962 – 50 years ago: “State auditors last June found Town of Plattsburgh Highway Superintendent Charles Goodman using town-owned equipment and gravel on private projects. The audit cited an opinion of the state comptroller that: ‘There is no statutory authority for a superintendent of highways to permit use of highway equipment to perform services for, or furnish gravel to, private parties with or without compensation.’”

Superintendent Goodman predates anyone patrolling our newsroom today, but we can assure you that he was not alone in abusing the advantages at his disposal in a highway department.

Far more recently than 50 years ago, that practice was so widespread it was taken for granted. Thirty years ago, certain town officials were still dispensing favors for friends, relatives, neighbors or political supporters in order to win re-election or just to stay popular.

Driveways were plowed by town equipment; sand, gravel and other materials were constituents’ for the asking or taking. Have a job that needed a backhoe? Call the highway department and set up a time. It was all de rigueur in local politics throughout the North Country.

Everybody knew it. Nobody questioned it. Public officials themselves winked and smiled. There was never a discouraging word. No one ever reasoned that, since not everybody was the recipient of such largesse, it was inequitably distributed. No one talked about the waste of taxpayer money.

There came a time, though, when that kind of corruption, if that’s what it actually was, was seen as an abuse of power. That attitude started coming into vogue around the time of the passage of the State Open Government laws.

People began to take their government more seriously and demand of it behavior worthy of the public trust.

Government officials had to account for their actions and the people’s money, and those kinds of favors were suddenly far out of favor.

We believe that, now, if any such shenanigans came to light, the guilty official would be treated accordingly.

So we have made some progress in government ethics, after all.