July 29, 2005

National City Spotlight:

Will the Ethics Bubble Burst?

By Ted Godshalk

When property values increase quickly as they have over the past two years, experts often theorize that the market is in a “bubble.” The bubble description is a good one because it implies the inevitable, sudden, and shocking pop when prices start to fall and the value of real estate investments sharply decreases. Sometimes frazzled nerves lead people to sell at a loss, or worse yet, they let the bank foreclose. We saw this kind of real estate bubble in the early 90’s, and without a doubt, this kind of bubble is bad.

While a real estate bubble can financially ruin a homeowner, a different kind of bubble can pop at any time and hurt many innocent people. This is the Ethics Bubble and it is floating out there right now. This bubble has been slowly and steadily inflating for a long time, and while there have been several small releases of gas the situation continues to inflate. Greed and competition in the business world are partly to blame for this swelling of unscrupulous behavior. But it is also the actions of some elected officials that have created this bubble of unethical behavior. Even with the many well-intentioned politicians out there, a slow, continual expansion has occurred. Some people have simply gravitated away from proper behavior and have grown to rely on the bubble to support their actions.

We have to look no further than to our neighbor to the north, San Diego, to see the evidence of this bubble. The municipal pension mismanagement that occurred over the past five years has now left six trustees under indictment for padding their own retirement accounts. Dick Murphy resigned his post as mayor in light of the mismanagement and the worse case of lack of confidence ever seen at SD’s City Hall. Many also think he outright stole the 2004 election when write-in ballots for Donna Frye were not counted. It was Frye’s concern for open government that put her in the position where she could mount a challenge in last year’s campaign for mayor and also prevail in this week’s primary. As much as she has blown fresh air on the problems, the foul bubble has only continued to grow.

Along the way, SD Councilmen Ralph Inzunza and Michael Zucchet faced indictment on corruption charges. This trial resulted in both men being found guilty and they now face prison terms. Simply put, the ethics of their actions were closely scrutinized by the United States Attorney’s office and by a jury representing the residents of San Diego County. Clearly the Councilmen believed they were operating inside this Ethics Bubble, mistakenly feeling protected by it like a shield. But this bubble has a thin membrane and those inside can be sometimes be seen while not being able to look out.

Congressman Duke Cunningham is just another character recently caught acting improperly while doing the public’s business. Enough said.

This Ethics Bubble has hurt families, employees, supporters, and the taxpayers. Rumors have it that there will be more criminal charges somewhere in the county, yet the bubble grows. Why has this Ethics Bubble grown to such a substantial size? With the small releases of pressure from it in the form of legal actions and resignations, the question must be asked: is there any way to deflate it for good? There is one way to let a huge amount of air out of it. It is called Campaign Reform. If local governments don’t take positive steps now to deflate the Ethics Bubble we are eventually going to see a deafening and disastrous blow up.

In National City, the time is ripe for reform. In July of 2004, the City Council half-heartedly considered term limits and campaign finance limits, called the “Good Government Initiative” by Mayor Nick Inzunza. The mayor had also asked for a personal pension bonus that would have paid him 30% of his monthly salary for life. The mayor pulled that proposal at the last moment. A Code of Ethics was proposed and of this we have not seen or heard anything since. The sole outcome from the ethics discussions came when the council put a measure on the ballot asking the voters if they wanted to limit the mayor to three terms. This proposition was approved even with the gaping hole in it that allows an individual to be reelected after sitting out for one election cycle. That is nothing more than the appearance of reform.

The residents of National City deserve real reforms. A movement is growing which demands open government, run by individuals who act with the highest scruples. These individuals must be accountable to the people of National City in appearance and deeds. Our future leaders must be educated in this ethic also. Through the wise institution of campaign reforms and the solid commitment to proper behavior, the Ethics Bubble might slowly deflate before there is any more damage.

Ted Godshalk can be reached at paradisecreek@mac.com

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