Friday, November 30, 2007

My outrage is selective? Your outrage is selective...

Political bloggers love to play pin the tail on the hypocrite. I do it too. I admit it. Nothing pleases us more than to be able to say that someone we disagree with has fed the goose but starved the gander. Given that there are very few human beings who can be absolutely consistent, there are always opportunities.

It's not a bad thing. Taking a principle and asking whether it applies to a different situation is a perfectly good way to clarify it.

But it does have this tendency to degenerate into a game of gotcha. Recently, I played the game to point out that there seem to be some rather serious legal questions surrounding Jennifer Morales proposing and voting on the extension of health benefits to the domestic partners of MPS employees. I looked at the state ethics code and the interpretations of the code by the ethics board. My point was not so much to accuse Morales of selling out the public for her own private benefit (I suspect that she'd favor domestic partner benefits even if she wasn't living with an MPS teacher) as to point out that there are apparently some problems with her acting on the proposal. I can see an argument in her favor (the city attorney has supposedly made it) and we know that legislators and public board members have to set their own salaries but, yet, there seems to be a rather substantial argument that she shouldn't act on this. And, even if she has a legal out, it certainly doesn't look good.

To the extent anyone has responded to this point, it has generally been to say that domestic partner benefits are a good thing. But that's no response just as it was no response to say that the cases that Annette Ziegler should have recused herself on but did not were decided correctly.

So I - and other people who raised the issue - were playing the game.

Anne Quimby Mathias has taken the game to a new level. She is playing a meta-version of the game, trying to pin the tail on the tail on the one who pinned the tail on the hypocrite. (If that's hard to follow, think of a dog.)Charlie Sykes raised the point about Morales' conflict. She is now accusing Charlie of inconsistency for never raising the fact that there are other board members who are married to MPS employees and who presumably act on employee compensation matters.

The domestic situation of those board members wasn't implicated by the domestic partner proposal. But I think the proper response to this is to double down.

Of course, the same issue applies to them. In fact, doesn't it seem a little cozy to have MPS board members married to MPS employees? If we are concerned with high ethical standards and avoiding even the appearance of impropriety, shouldn't these board members (or their spouses) resign? I know that Pundit Nation is concerned about integrity in public office because it has repeatedly weighed in on the Ziegler issue.

The tail, Ms. Mathias, is to you.


Anne Quimby Mathias said...

Good God, Esenberg, Michael told me you were intelligent.


But let's call a spade a spade. Sykes outrage is because Morales is a lesbian. His inconsistency is about denying equal rights to a certain group of people.

I have no issues with any board members, gay, straight or ridding the fence, involved with or married to MPS employees. In fact, their involvement with MPS teachers or administrators probably gives them additional insight that makes them better board members.

Rick Esenberg said...

Sykes outrage is because Morales is a lesbian.

How could you possibly know that?

As for the "benefit" of being involved with an MPS employee, would you also think that a judge's involvement with a board member of a bank that is litigating before her might give her some additional insight?

The analogy isn't exact because there are differences between judging and legislating but, really, how hard is it to see that there is a conflict of interest in voting on your spouse's salary?

Dad29 said...

'None so blind as they who will not see', Rick...

One thing about SarbOx--it made Boards and spouses separate entities...

Michael J. Mathias said...

One thing the MPS Board has on its side is the opinion from the City Attorney giving them some cover. Ziegler had no cover, has admitted as such, and is forcing her new colleagues to dole out her punishment. I just don't see the analogy. Of course, if we only had universal health care, Sykes would have nothing to complain about.

Rick Esenberg said...

I would think that you'd want to have a more persuasive distinction than whether she had "cover."

The analogy is this: We expect public officials to act on some basis other than their personal interest. We want judges to follow the law. We want legislators to act in the public interest.

Because of this, we get concerned when a public official has a rather substantial personal interest in the matter at hand. We call it a conflict of interest because we see the possibility of the personal interest interfering with the what we see as this duty to follow the law or act in the public interest. Sometimes we decide that the conflict is such that the official should just opt out, i.e., she should avoid the occasion of sin.

Ziegler's personal interest in the West Bend cases was fairly small. They weren';t going to mean much to the family purse either way.

Morales' interest is huge.

I think that in the case of a general legislative body - maybe even a municipal body - we need to have a standard that is more lax because of the breadth of the legislature's responsbilities. It is harder to avoid things that won't affect individual legislators.

But I don't see that with a school board. Just as it is relatively easy to say that a judge who is unrelated to West Bend Savings should decide its cases, it is easy to say that we should not have school board members who dine at the school trough.