National city ethics expert Robert Wechsler says transparency is a major component of city ethics. Wechsler’s Local Government Ethics in a Nutshell is required city ethics training available on Denton’s website.
According to Stanford researcher Jon Krosnik, Americans are unhappy with elected officials they believe are too influenced by those who helped them win. His 2018 research revealed 80% of respondents believed politicians should pay more attention to the general public, but only 26% believe they do.
And Denton residents want transparency.
Poor transparency doesn’t exist in a vacuum. It isn’t caused or cured by one person. Denton’s secretive environment developed over many years. City officials react emotionally if they perceive criticism as an attack on their integrity. The city system’s integrity, not individual integrity, is the problem.
An aquarium is an example of a system. If the aquarium’s balance is off, the system can restore itself through homeostasis. In family systems, a family member may change, but the system may pull them back into the norm, even if it’s dysfunctional. If Denton is to repair the lack of transparency, everyone from the mayor to council to city employees must participate.
Scholars believe the appearance of impropriety, or inappropriateness, matters most. Denton city government is secretive. It’s easier to manage a community with fewer interruptions by keeping citizens in the dark, but secrecy takes the air out of the democratic process. Poor transparency makes residents wonder what’s going on even if everything is appropriate.
Local Government Ethics Reforms by Wechsler offers a 1,000-page deep dive into city ethics. Ethical blind spots include bounded awareness, where elected officials define concepts too narrowly, exclude important information, and see what they want to see. Politicians know their motives, feelings and character, but the general public only sees actions. In other words, elected officials see their position from the inside, while residents see officials from the outside. The appearance of impropriety that is as important as reality damages public trust.
Citizens who speak out about problems in Denton’s government get labeled troublemakers or worse. Officials who impugn citizens’ reputations misuse their position. Intimidation by elected officials undermines free speech and citizen oversight and prevents others from speaking up. Wechsler, a Harvard and Columbia law graduate, became involved in city ethics after being intimidated by officials in his city. In Denton’s nontransparent environment, fear fueled by intimidation causes citizens to lose trust.
Denton city government must put the “public” back in “public servant” by embracing transparency.