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The Potential Cost of Demonstrating Ethical Competence

By Richard Jacobs

After just six months on the job, the newly hired business manager of Elizabeth Township, N.J., Aaron Sukenik, was fired early in 2013. The trouble is that Sukenik appears to have been doing what the ASPA code of ethics requires of its members.

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Absent malpractice, outcomes such as this oftentimes results from a less than transparent series of events with the finger of blame pointed at a neophyte. Moreover, if that individual is an “at will” employee—as Sukenik was—the neophyte has little or no recourse.

Why should ASPA members implement the code if doing so may result in being fired?

Some background…

An article in TribLive reported that back in 2006, Elizabeth Township hired Robert McNeilly as chief of police, replacing Sergeant Gene Francesconi who was serving as acting chief. Following McNeilly’s hiring, Francesconi resigned from the department and eventually was elected president of the township’s board of commissioners. It appears, however, that Francesconi harbored resentment for not being promoted to chief.

After Sukenik’s firing, he filed a complaint alleging unprofessional if not potentially illegal conduct on Francesconi’s part. For example:

  • Shortly after being hired, Francesconi told Sukenik in October 2012 that he was opposed to McNeilly assigning certain officers to follow up on investigations that remained open. Sukenik saw no legitimate basis for the objections and in his complaint claims to have defended the training as economically beneficial to the department. Could those investigations have focused upon some of Francesconi’s cronies?
  • Francesconi ordered Sukenik in January 2013 to oppose McNeilly’s decision to send two officers to Kentucky for training, raising questions regarding the cost of the training. The board had approved funding the training by a unanimous vote. Why the sudden change of attitude since Francesconi voted to fund the training?
  • Francesconi also questioned Sukenik about the Chief’s use of a “take home” police car. Sukenik claims he explained to Francesconi that the use of a police car was part of the chief’s compensation package. Was Francesconi pressuring the neophyte business manager concerning a political vendetta that had nothing to do with Sukenik? 

Later in January 2013, Sukenik informed the Township’s Solicitor, Pat McGrail, that Francesconi’s actions potentially violated New Jersey’s first class township code. How so? Commissioners have no right to interfere with police department decisions.

What was Sukenik to do? Concerned about Francesconi’s demands, Sukenik believed Francesconi was seeking to use him to retaliate against McNeilly.

Sukenik didn’t comply with Francesconi’s demands and was fired.

Assessing the evidence…

Newly-hired public administrators confront a host of ethical dilemmas. Arguably, one of the most important involves how to negotiate the potentially hazardous terrain of relationships with powerful township officials. With a new hire just getting acquainted with these officials, what’s one to do when one or more exert political pressure and thinly veiled threats? Is it best for a neophyte to be malleable with one’s principles? Or should the neophyte adhere to them?

The revised ASPA code of ethics offers at least three principles and subsidiary practices to guide public administrators when deliberating about dilemmas like these:

  • Principle #5 requires public administrators to “fully inform and advise” by providing “accurate, honest, comprehensive and timely information and advice to elected and appointed officials and governing board members, and to staff members in your organization.”
  • Principle #6 obliges public administrators to “demonstrate personal integrity” by adhering “to the highest standards of conduct to inspire public confidence and trust in public service.”
  • Principle #7 mandates that public administrators “promote ethical organizations” as they “strive to attain the highest standards of ethics, stewardship and public service in organizations that serve the public.” 

The record suggests that Sukenik implemented principle #5 dutifully. He informed and advised Francesconi and then McGrail concerning his assessment of the situation. In addition, Sukenik did so knowing his assessment may not have been what either township official wanted to hear.

Sukenik also appears to have fully complied with principle #6. He exercised integrity, courage and benevolence and did so without compromising his independent assessment in order to curry favor with Francesconi. Most importantly, Sukenik resisted the pressure Francesconi was exerting upon him to compromise his integrity and principles and did so without partisanship or favoritism. Lastly, Sukenik appeared willing to accept personal responsibility for his conduct and the potential harsh consequences it could unleash.

Moreover, because Sukenik was funding programs the board had unanimously approved, he was endeavoring to be a good steward of those funds. Then, too, in seeking to advise Francesconi about potential wrongdoing, Sukenik was reporting directly to his superior. But after Francesconi continued insisting that Sukenik do his potentially illegal bidding, Sukenik took the matter to the township solicitor. All of these actions fully comply with Principle #7.

The troubling outcome…

Apparently, the decision to fire Sukenik was made when the board met in executive session prior to its public meeting on February 4, 2013. With a 4-3 vote in hand, the decision was enacted as the first order of business.

All didn’t proceed smoothly. Concerning Sukenik’s termination, one township resident, Emil Burak, challenged Francesconi, who fired back, “That’s a personnel issue.” Burak responded: “You’re the same people that hired him. Now all of a sudden he’s no good?” Ironically, Francesconi threatened to have the police chief remove Burak from council chambers.

Following the meeting, McNeilly expressed surprise at Sukenik’s dismissal. He said: “Aaron was a good man. I don’t understand this. It was a shock.” McNeilly described Sukenik as “very straightforward, honest, hardworking and intelligent,” adding that he believed Sukenik was fired because of his refusal to meddle in police department affairs.

“They wanted him to coerce me into making changes in the department that weren’t in the best interest of the department,” McNeilly said. “He was doing what he thought was right and I believe it cost him his position here.”

If Sukenik prevails in his complaint that he was terminated as political retaliation for not meddling in police department affairs, he will recover the $6,083.33 in compensation Sukenik claims he is owed for the 30-day period following his firing.

That’s small recompense for demonstrating the kind of ethical competence that’s expected of ASPA members. Yet, Sukenik walked away from his job with the content of his virtuous character intact.

In the Apology, Socrates stated that he’d rather “die for the truth than to live a lie.” How many public administrators in Sukenik’s position would have cast their ethical principles and character to the wind simply to keep their jobs?

Improving the ethical character of public service organizations requires public administrators who commit themselves to uphold virtuous principles and practices…perhaps even at the high cost of one’s job.

 

Author: Richard M. Jacobs is a professor of public administration at Villanova University, where he teaches organization theory and leadership ethics in the MPA program. Jacobs can be reached at [email protected].

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The American Society for Public Administration is the largest and most prominent professional association for public administration. It is dedicated to advancing the art, science, teaching and practice of public and non-profit administration.

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