Ethics education needed for public officials

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, January 6, 2004

The people of Alabama want good government at every level and expect their public officials to act in an ethical manner.

It seems lately that a day cannot go by without another news headline detailing some ethics violation in Alabama’s government. While many of these &uot;unethical activities&uot; are born out of shear arrogance, there are instances when public officials have not made themselves fully aware of what the ethics laws cover.

According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, Alabama has one of the strongest ethics laws in the country.

Then why does our state continue to have case after case of ignorance about these laws? It is partly because we do not have a system in Alabama that mandates ethics training for our officials.

While the citizens should always expect their public officials to be ethical from the moment that they take office, sometimes the ethics laws in our state become a lesson in contradictions and vagueness.

While most states offer some form of ethics training for state legislators at least one-fourth of the states now require mandatory ethics training for their state officials.

I think it is time that we stop taking the state ethics laws so lightly and enact a statute making ethics training for officials mandatory and not voluntary.

Not only should we require legislators to sit through vigorous ethics education courses but the state should go one step further. Legislation needs to be enacted calling on mandatory ethics education courses for legislators, legislative staff, all state and locally elected officials, department heads and yes, even lobbyists.

No one can argue that mandatory ethics training will make our state’s government honest and ethical overnight. We must fully fund the Alabama Ethics Commission and allow this watch dog agency to do its job.

There will always be some bad apples in the barrel, but we should begin to show the people of Alabama that we are serious about ethics in government.

This can be done by mandating ethics training for all officials involved in the political process we are sending a message that ignorance is no longer a defense for incompetence or arrogance.

By combining mandatory ethics education with a ban on pass through pork, stiffer penalties for ethics violations and a fully funded ethics commission, we can take the first of many steps in restoring faith in our government.

Cam Ward, who resides with his wife, Julie, and daughter, Riley, in Alabaster, serves as Shelby County state representative for District 49