by Max Marbut
Having an effective ethics program in any environment is all about enhancing communication.
That’s how Carla Miller, the City’s recently-appointed ethics officer, described her task at hand.
Miller, a Jacksonville attorney, is a former federal prosecutor and staff director for the Florida House of Representatives Select Committee on Organized Crime in 1978 before handling public corruption cases from 1980-82. Miller has also served in a volunteer capacity as the city’s ethics officer since 1999 and helped write the City’s first ethics code and establish a model program for ethics training for elected officials. She has also developed the ethics training curriculum for Jacksonville’s more than 7,000 City employees.
She currently teaches at the Markulla Center for Ethics at Santa Clara University in California and is the founder and president of City Ethics, an organization that assists municipalities across the United States establish ethics programs.
“The job of an Ethics Officer is to develop an ethical culture because in any large organization, a city government for example, you can’t eliminate all unethical behavior or criminal activity,” she said, then added according to studies that have been conducted all over the nation in many different management situations, “85 percent of all corruption is known to all involved. They may not know the exact details but they know something is wrong. The signs are there,” said Miller
One of the prime directives included in Mayor John Peyton’s executive order No. 07-11 that put Miller in the Ethics Office on the 4th floor at City Hall was to, “Implement in coordination with the City’s Inspector general and the Office of General Counsel and with the voluntary support of the Council Auditor’s Office a confidential ‘Hotline’ for the discovery of government waste, fraud and ethics violations.”
She said the Hotline (630-1015) is “Up and running. People are already calling and we’ve opened up some cases.”
Having a phone number dedicated to making it easy for people to speak out is a key element of her ethics in government philosophy.
“The problem can lie where people feel it isn’t safe to come forward. They have a family and feel their job or their benefits or their pension might be at risk if they came forward.
“There is always a need for more communication between citizens and their government, employees and their supervisors and top management. People at all levels have to be able to communicate and feel they’re being heard,” said Miller.
She added she realizes that no system is perfect and any ethics program depends on people getting involved in the process.
“When I was a crime prevention specialist for the City we used to go out to homes that had been burglarized. We say to the victims you cannot prevent a burglary from ever happening to you. What you can do is install better locks and an alarm system or you can turn a light on. You can do things that will make it extremely difficult for a burglar to get into your house, but you cannot make people perfect in the world.”
Miller said there are similarities between that situation to the City’s ethics program.
“In a very large city like Jacksonville you can’t say that every single person who comes into government will be an ethical and honest person, so it comes down to the control systems. I teach with Michael Josephson in ‘Character Counts’ and he calls it ‘The Law of Big Numbers’. In every large group there are bound to be some crooks. You have to build in front-end controls and cross-checks.”
She also said the Hotline is available 24 hours a day seven days a week and she needs the help of all City elected officials, employees and citizens to develop the “culture of ethics.”
“We need to have everyone with their eyes and ears open and knowing that if they communicate with the Ethics Office we will dig into it and do the right thing and the problem will be resolved.
”We need to let everybody in the city know they need to call the Hotline when something isn’t okay if we’re going to create that ethical culture.”
One of the things Miller has developed in 10 years as an ethics educator is one of her favorite analogies: “The Ethics Elephant.” It’s based on an Indian fable that tells the story of five blind men who are asked to tell what an elephant is just by touching it.
“One man touches the elephant’s tail and says an elephant is like a rope. Another touches the side of the elephant and says its like a wall. A third touches the elephant’s foot and says it’s like a tree trunk.
“In other words, all of them approach the elephant differently so they all see it differently and they all think they know what it is. Ethics is like that. Different people call ethics different things and many people don’t have a definition for ethics.”
Miller has another pachyderm-based analogy she uses to explain the different parts of an effective ethics program.
“The elephant’s feet are the ethics code, the foundation of the system. The ethics officer is the trunk, right up front and responsible for the ethics culture. The inspector general is the eyes and develops controls like procedures and auditing and investigation. The Hotline and the whistle blowers are the ears. The body is the ethics commission.
“The back of the elephant is the tail and it represents the grand jury and criminal prosecution. You don’t want to go there,” she said.
Miller pointed out that despite her background as a former federal prosecutor, “Jacksonville’s Ethics Office is not punishment-oriented. We’re here to enhance communication.”
During her half-hour interview with the Daily Record, Miller answered the Hotline twice. She said while the procedure may change in the future based on call and case volume, “Right now I’m the one manning the phone. I want to get a feel for the types of calls we’re getting and how they’re being handled.”
Miller also said the ethics officer post is a part-time position and it represents a unique opportunity.
“It was set up as part-time but I know I’ll be thinking about it (the ethics program) 24-7. I have been working on this program for 10 years as a volunteer, but now I’ll get to watch it work every day.”