State facing lack of public confidence

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, August 3, 2004

President John F. Kennedy once said, &uot;The basis of effective government is public confidence, and that confidence is endangered when ethical standards falter or appear to falter.&uot;

This is an accurate description of the current state of Alabama’s government.

Beginning with the ouster of former Gov. Guy Hunt in 1993 and continuing today with the political tales of the truly bought and paid for ethics of the Siegelman administration, the state of Alabama has done nothing to restore confidence in our government.

While I was recently reading a study conducted by the National Conference of State Legislators, I was struck by the fact that while Alabama does have tough ethics laws, we have a dismal ethical record for our public officials.

This has as much to do with the fact ethics are as much an issue of public perception as the are legalistic.

Tough laws do not make people more ethical and should never be the basis of how an elected official conducts him or her self.

Ethics are rooted firmly in the moral character of a person; ethics laws are not designed to say what is ethical, only what is permissible.

There are many unethical acts that are technically legal but are morally reprehensible to the general senses of the people we are supposed to represent in Montgomery.

Public confidence in their state government is directly tied to the perception of how ethical their elected officials conduct themselves.

Multiple surveys conducted throughout the state reveal that people do not have confidence in state government because they feel that Montgomery cannot be trusted to spend money wisely and ethical scandals have made them distrust their state officials.

As legislators we must take the lead in setting an example for ethical standards, not only legally but also in a moral sense.

While it may not be illegal in a technical sense to accept gifts of a high value, we have a moral obligation to ensure that the public trusts their government officials.

This can only be done by conducting ourselves in a manner that is above reproach and pass laws that go beyond the normal ethics standards.

We must pass legislation strengthening the sunshine laws in Alabama to give the people more access to government meetings and records.

How can we ask the people to trust us if they do not have the ability to know what their elected officials are doing behind closed doors?

Legislation must be enacted to close the loopholes in the nepotism laws throughout our state. We cannot expect the public to have confidence in their government and at the same time allow elected officials to hire family members to work for them or an entity they control.

Gifts to elected officials must also be restricted. Currently lobbyists are required to report any expense made on an elected official that exceeds $250; this does not restrict the overall amount that can be spent on an elected official.

While a lobbyist may legally spend thousands of dollars on an elected official, the appearance of impropriety greatly diminishes the public’s trust in our state government.

This law must be changed to enforce a strict gift ban of an exact dollar amount and in any event elected officials should always ask themselves, &uot;Does this action violate my personal moral ethical code?&uot;

Restoring public confidence to state government should be one of the highest priorities that the legislature should take on during the next session, but it can also start today by the actions of individual leaders who follow a strict personal ethical standard.

Rep. Cam Ward, serves District 49 in the Alabama House of Representatives which includes parts of Shelby and Bibb Counties. He and his wife, Julie, and daughter, Riley, live in Alabaster