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John Florez: Let's start an ethics renaissance

Published: Saturday, March 31 2012 12:00 a.m. MDT

Kim Burningham of Utahns for Ethical Government promotes a push to gather enough signatures on a petition for ethics reform.

Laura Seitz, Deseret News

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Ethics is not something we learn in a workshop or training session. It is not an intellectual exercise. Ethics is what we learn from our parents very early and becomes an integral part of our personality. We are taught ethics by our parents, in our schools and in our churches. And, for most of us, our ethical behavior is firmly established by the time we grow up.

However there are some, when elected to public office, that seem to lose all sense of ethics. They give the appearance of promoting ethics with transparency schemes. Utah state legislators have developed all kinds of transparency and accountability in government for state agencies and employees. In 2008, Sen. Wayne Niederhauser sponsored SB38, Transparency in Government. It would not only provide transparency, but accountability as well. The state now can track 4.5 million transactions such as revenues and expenditures by department, including supplies, travel, pencils, etc.

However, when it comes to transparency and accountability for the Legislature, the attitude is, "Do as we say, not as we do." The Center For Public Integrity gave Utah legislators an overall grade of C and ranked it 36 among the 50 states. They ranked Utah in the following areas: access to public information (D+), political financing (F), legislative accountability (F), lobbying disclosure (F) and ethics enforcement (F).

Polls overwhelmingly have shown Utahns want ethics reform. In 2009, Gov. Jon Huntsman appointed a commission to find out why the public lacks confidence in its state political institutions. In addition a citizens group, Utahns for Ethical Government, or UEG, circulated a petition calling for ethics reform, including limiting and full disclosure regarding campaign contributions. However, after stonewalling citizens' complaints, the Legislature established their own commission that only gave the appearance of ethics reform.

Later, the Legislature established an ethics training and test that all legislators and lobbyists were required to attend and take. It was interesting to note that one of those who did not initially take the test was Niederhauser, the champion of requiring state departments to be transparent and accountable.

We were taught that our elected leaders were to be respected, trusted and held to a higher standard. Our Legislature has failed to hold themselves to the ethical standards they demand from their own agencies and employees, not to mention what the public expects from its leaders. People have lost trust and confidence in them and their government.

Most harmful is the poor example our political leaders are setting for our youth. Our lawmakers become part of the numbing of the values Utahns hold dearly — trust, integrity and honesty. The reality is that youth do not do as we say, rather what we do as adults, including our elected leaders.

With the dramatic social change brought about by the Internet and globalization, the institutions that help form the values that hold our society together — families, schools, churches — have found themselves struggling to respond to the changing needs of a new generation influenced by today's interconnected world.

What we need is an ethics renaissance where each of us commits to renewing those institutions that perpetuated the values that formed our state's ethical character. We now know that our elected leaders may quickly become intoxicated with a sense of power and resist change. Therefore, it's up to each of us to restore ethics to our government by speaking out and working with groups such as UEG.

It's up to each of us to work to preserve those values that hold our society together. We owe it to the new generation.

A Utah native, John Florez has been on the staff of Sen. Orrin Hatch, served as former Utah Industrial Commissioner and filled White House appointments, including Deputy Assistant Secretary of Labor and Commission on Hispanic Education. Email him at jdflorez@comcast.net.

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