Alicia J. Skillman, the new executive director of the Detroit Board of Ethics, took note of my recent column calling for the need for good governance seminars in the wake of the federal indictment of Detroit City Councilman Gabe Leland on bribery charges.
Skillman, an attorney, reached out and said the charter-mandated independent agency would be ready to conduct ethics and good governance training for all city workers including mayoral and council appointees.
But the problem, according to Skillman, is that she is working on a shoestring budget of about $400,000 annually with only three staff members including an investigator.
“What makes the Detroit Board of Ethics unique is that we must be proactive rather than just reactive,” Skillman said. “The charter has a mandate for training all 9,000 or so public servants and we’d like to meet that goal. It will require additional funding.”
Last month, Skillman sent a request to the city’s chief financial officer asking for $130,000 that includes the funding of a full-time training coordinator.
In the Sept. 10 letter she said, “We only need to look at media reports to understand why this is required and why substantial ongoing support is necessary for training. Essentially, when no ethics training is provided we fail public servants and the residents of our city.”
The letter also paints a picture of a continued struggle for resources between the ethics chief and officials in control of the city’s budget.
“For FY18-19 we requested support for digital learning and it was not granted. Yet, across the country, digital learning is the best practice for municipal ethics training and Detroit will transition there within the next two years. But today’s needs must be addressed,” Skillman wrote.
But it is not only resource to do the work needed that Skillman is pushing for. She also sent a letter to Mayor Mike Duggan requesting to provide training for his cabinet members as well as those in leadership roles in the administration.
“Ethics is foundational for today’s Detroit,” Skillman wrote. “Moreover, ethics training for the cabinet is a good leadership model and will set the tone for all public servants.”
John Roach, the mayor’s spokesman, said the administration is on top of the issue.
“Maintaining the highest ethical standards is a high priority for the administration,” Roach said. “Upon taking office in 2014, one of the mayor’s first official actions was to issue an executive order requiring all department heads to file annual ethics disclosure forms. Members of the administration are free to take additional ethics training if they wish.”
Asked whether the administration would support Skillman’s request for more funding, Roach said, “As far the budget is concerned, the chief financial officer is in the early stages of next year’s budget process and will be considering all such requests over the never several months.”
Councilwoman Raquel Castenada-Lopez said funding the ongoing work of the ethics board should be a top priority.
“Creating a strong ethical culture in the city is vital for building and maintaining residents trust in government,” Castenada-Lopez said. “I support additional funding for the ethics board to help foster our shared values of integrity, accountability, transparency and respect throughout the city.”
For a city government that has proven in the past to be ethically challenged evident by past convictions of former city officials for wrongdoing, it only makes sense that the city moves to arm those who wear the badge of public service with the requisite education to avoid even the appearance of impropriety.
If anything, the serious crimes that the federal government is now accusing Councilman Leland of committing tells us that Detroit still has problems upholding integrity in public service. That makes it all the more necessary for ethics to be at the center of how Detroit does business.
“Having an ethical workforce goes hand in hand with having a prepared workforce,” Skillman told me. "If we want public servants to be prepared and follow the ethics ordinance, we must provide training so they have knowledge and understand the disclosure requirements and the standards of conduct.”
She added, “An investment in ethics means an investment in public servants. This education is key and it is most effectively delivered by digital means and the use of marketing/social media tools. And the use of social media means the Detroit community can become educated also.”
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