In Oakland California we have a prime example of why it’s not enough for public officials to avoid actual unethical conduct, and why they have to avoid the appearance of impropriety as well.
Last summer, Oakland, California decided to address its increasing budgetary problems with a more aggressive parking ticket policy and extended parking meter hours. The City Council rescinded the meter-hour extension after protests from business owners and shop patrons, but the mercilessly enforced parking tickets continued.
Some narrow streets, however, posed special problems. Residents had parked the wrong way or on the sidewalk for years, because it was difficult and even dangerous to try to turn their cars around. If they didn’t park up on the sidewalk, emergency vehicles couldn’t pass. It didn’t seem fair to ticket the cars in these neighborhoods, so with the urging of the City Council, the police began instituting a policy of issuing courtesy warnings instead of tickets on those especially narrow streets.
Seems reasonable, don’t you think? Except that neighborhoods getting the bulk of the ticket breaks happened to be in wealthy, white areas. This is how the U.P.I. framed the resulting controversy:
OAKLAND, Calif., Feb. 25 (UPI) — Parking enforcement officers in Oakland, Calif., were told to go easy on violators in rich areas and keep issuing tickets in poor areas, documents indicate.
Citing a city memo it obtained and interviews with parking officers, the San Francisco Chronicle reported Thursday the orders came down in July. Shirnell Smith, 44 — who has worked as a parking officer for 22 years — told the newspaper the policy has led to a disproportionate number of tickets being issued to poor, black and Latino people.
“It’s not fair,” Smith said.
The Oakland city government is now tearing out its metaphorical hair. Officer Smith is active in the unit of the Service Employees International Union that represents city workers, and suspicion is rife that the union is using the parking issue as a bargaining tactic. City Administrator Dan Lindheim and Parking Director Noel Pinto swear that the facts of the parking policy have been distorted to suggest discrimination where none exists. They say the city’s policy on wrong-way parking and parking on the sidewalk is the same across the city. “If it’s a wide street [defined as a street with a median or a stripe down the middle], we ticket,” he said. “If it’s not a wide street, we don’t ticket.”
Right. But if all or most of the streets where there is no ticketing just happen to be in rich, white neighborhoods, can you blame people for being upset? It looks like discrimination. It looks terrible. The policy creates distrust of the government and its commitment to justice and fairness.
The situation was a tricky one, but a little anticipation and full, candid, advance disclosure would have gone a long way to avoid the current battle…either that, or the city should have just drawn lines down the middle of every street. In any decision involving ethical trade-offs, it is disastrous to stop at deciding whether a particular action is ethical, and not examine whether it will also appear ethical.
Officials in Oakland are learning this ethics lesson the hard way.