Past holds lesson on political ethics

From the news hitting the headlines lately, you might think the

political ethics

is an oxymoron.
We have Terry Gregory booted off San Jose’s city council, and
last Friday, booked by police on 11 misdemeanors.
From the news hitting the headlines lately, you might think the term “political ethics” is an oxymoron.

We have Terry Gregory booted off San Jose’s city council, and last Friday, booked by police on 11 misdemeanors. These ethical charges include failing to report gifts and partaking in council decisions in which Gregory had a financial conflict of interest.

And City Manager Del Borgsdorf, City Attorney Rick Doyle and other staff members soaked in hot water over San Jose’s tainted $8 million technology deal with Cisco Systems supplying networking equipment for the new downtown City Hall.

And over in Sacramento, let’s not forget Secretary of State Kevin Shelley’s nasty abuse of power. A state investigation paints an ugly picture of him rewarding pals with cushy government jobs, being involved in alleged sexual harassment, and potential criminal tampering with the civil service system.

I know this recent dearth of scruples among politicos is nothing new in history. But perhaps history might also teach us how to deal with unethical politicians. The infamous story of Charley Bigley is one such civics lesson.

Who is Charley Bigley? He just happens to have run an efficiently corrupt political machine in the South Bay during the last century. From the early 1920s to 1944, Bigley owned San Jose’s city government.

Hardly ever mentioned now – probably for good cause – Bigley made his legitimate money from taxi, ambulance and funeral limousine services. But his real wealth came from unlawful gambling rooms and liquor sales during Prohibition. He built his civic domination by calling in favors from those people to whom he’d loaned money or for whom he’d obtained jobs.

Bigley played puppet master to four of San Jose’s seven council members. From his company’s garage office overlooking Market Plaza (now Cesar Chavez Plaza) where City Hall once stood, he carefully instructed his council toadies on how to vote.

Considerably aiding Bigley in his power plays was City Manager Clarence Goodwin. Goodwin received his influential position from Bigley’s city council lackeys.

Also adding to Bigley’s tight vise on the city was his considerable political leverage in hiring in San Jose’s police and fire departments. In return, policemen and firemen – in uniform! – campaigned door-to-door for the Bigley machine candidates. That’s a big ethical no-no.

A story tells of a certain young man named Ray Blackmore approaching Goodwin at City Hall seeking a job as a policeman. Told there were no openings, Blackmore walked across the street to Bigley’s garage. He told the political boss his story. Bigley asked if Blackmore played baseball. Blackmore did. Bigley told him to go back to Goodwin. Blackmore left City Hall that day a police officer – and a ball player on the police baseball team Bigley was so beamin’ proud of. (Blackmore would later serve for 25 years as San Jose’s chief of police.)

Eventually, reformers broke Bigley’s machine. In 1944, local property owners, merchants, business people and lawyers formed a group called “The Progress Committee” to loosen Bigley’s clutch. In the hotly contested election that year, they ousted all of Bigley’s puppet councilmen and gave City Manager Goodwin the boot – thus ending a two-decade reign of political sleaze.

Unfortunately, the lesson of Charley Bigley was lost on the present San Jose city council members. A big part of the problem is Mayor Ron Gonzales’s imperious demeanor.

Like old Charley Bigley, Gonzales simply chooses to ignore drawing a line between his personal friends and city lobbyists and consultants. Hiz Honor’s attitude of arrogance seeped into the culture of the staff – including City Manager Borgsdorf.

The embarrassing Cisco fiasco serves as proof Gonzales and other council members just never learned the Bigley lesson. How quickly they shut down all investigation of that tech deal gone sour. “Hey guys, let’s just sweep the dirt under the carpet.”

But I’m sure the ethical lessons of San Jose’s city council – and Kevin Shelley in Sacramento – won’t be lost on the elected officials of the South Valley. OK. Knowing human nature to be what it is, maybe I’m not that sure.

One vitally important safeguard to check such unprincipled behavior is to make sure every city government in the South Valley follows (as encouraged by the League of California Cities’ Institute for Local Self Government) its own “official codes of ethics and values.”

After checking with the city clerks in Hollister, Gilroy and Morgan Hill, I learned only one out of the three have officially sanctioned ethics codes. Hollister’s general policy is to “abide by state laws concerning conflicts of interest,” and Gilroy chose not to create an official ethics policy but follows “norms” instead.

A gold star goes to Morgan Hill, however. It approved an official ethics policy in 1996. Recently, a committee revised the policy from “rules-based” to “values-based” guidelines. The city council will vote on the updated draft in two weeks.

Morgan Hill’s code spells out what ethical behavior and procedures are acceptable in local government. As City Attorney Helene Leichter told me, “The council takes ethics pretty seriously.”

I encourage South Valley’s other governing bodies to take ethics pretty seriously, too. I urge them to approve codes of ethics to be followed by all city officials and staff. Of course, no code guarantees perfect ethical behavior. But it builds a solid foundation.

We’re lucky that right in our own South Bay backyard we have an excellent resource to answer the sometimes tricky questions of government ethics. Santa Clara University serves as the home for the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics. I recommend South Valley governing officials who say they’re serious about ethical behavior in government contact the center’s Judy Nadler. She’s responsible for programs in government ethics and ethical leadership. The former Santa Clara mayor drafted that city’s ethical policy. She can help Hollister and Gilroy council members draft codes of ethics and values, too.

Ethics are the bedrock of democracy. They’re a requirement of good government. History teaches us those who hold the public’s trust must also hold a high standard of ethical behavior.