Government Ethics and Public Trust
The recent news about three public officials and local leaders, Sedgwick County Councilmember Michael O’Donnell, City Councilmember James Clendenin, and State Representative Michael Capps, has been devastating for our local community and the entire State of Kansas. A secret recording released Friday shows that these three Republican officials sought to frame the county’s Republican chairman for a falsified ad they put together smearing then-mayoral candidate Brandon Whipple. The calculated, callus, and premeditated intentions of these men apparent in the recordings are reprehensible and highlight the worst in us as human beings and public servants.
Consequently, there has been a call for candidates and elected officials to call for the immediate resignation of these individuals. I’ve struggled to make this statement, not because I disagree with making it, but because I believe the call to action for candidates and elected officials should carry a much greater weight and meaning. The call for these leaders to resign is a cry for a unified response that denounces this type of behavior as having no place in public service. But, in many ways, this call to action has come too late. Essentially, we are calling for the resignation of these individuals because they got caught.
The reality is, this type of behavior isn’t something that happened overnight and has likely manifested over a long period of time, even before being elected. I can imagine there have been countless questionable behaviors that candidates and elected officials have witnessed over the course of their campaigns, terms, and public service careers. If the one true north that Michael O'Donnell has learned over his time in politics is to avoid the truth at all costs and go on the attack, that means logically, it’s what he’s learned...over time. The logic of this incident being a “learned” behavior tells us that this behavior has also been taught by others, with an example being provided by mentors, seasoned elected officials, and political strategists and leaders who have shown these misguided public servants that this is how to navigate politics.
What is dangerous is when this behavior begins to create groupthink, a psychological phenomenon that causes rational people to make irrational decisions due to the urge to conform or the belief that dissent isn’t possible. Groups (such as political parties for purposes of this example) that prioritize their group identity and behave coldly toward “outsiders,” may be more likely to fall victim to groupthink. In places where dissenting opinion is discouraged or openly attacked, members are even more likely to engage in groupthink when making decisions. In consequential spaces, like politics, groupthink can be even more destructive, where individuals ignore ethics or morals in their decisions, causing collateral damage like what we are seeing play out in real-time here locally.
What we’ve witnessed by these public leaders is about protecting their self-interest or a group’s political interest over protecting the public trust. These behaviors are a prime example of a delusional need to maintain power or position at all costs, and they threaten the very existence of our democracy. My call to action is for all candidates and public leaders to reject this type of behavior in every moment it happens, to encourage our colleagues to do the same, and to provide an example of leadership through our own ethical actions and decisions. We must take it upon ourselves to carry out these essential duties in order to protect the sanctity of public service. We must have the courage to dissent and say, “This is wrong. I won’t conduct myself unethically and neither should you,” rather than conform. This is a personal drive we cultivate within that puts integrity first. If we accept that this is “just politics,” we also inadvertently perpetuate and deepen the public’s distrust of government. As candidates and elected officials, our most important duty is to protect the sanctity of the public trust, and to do that, we must hold our positions in the highest and most noble regard.
Our community has suffered enough at the misuse of unchecked power, influence, authority and control. We must not only call for the resignation of these individuals, but we must call upon our own sense of responsibility and accountability in the matter for which our complacency or conformity has allowed it to occur. We must also consider and advocate for more stringent ethical standards for candidates and officeholders alike. For example, the Kansas Governmental Ethics Commission sends a Fair Campaign Practices Statement to candidates, but they aren’t required to sign it or abide by it and there are no consequences if they don’t. We can and we must do better than this. The future of our democracy and the strength and capacity of our community depend on it.