Without Fear or Favor!

The ethical challenges facing elected and appointed public officials and government employees are numerous, daunting, and ever more complex in the hyper-connected world of the Internet, blogs, tablets, and electronic communication. Is it any wonder that so many public officials fall off the ethical ladder as they move up in tenure or position of authority? No, but the question might be rephrased to wonder, “why do so many keep their balance?” The truth of the matter is that we do not know precisely how many men and women holding public office in America stay the ethical course, but it is reasonable to presume that the numbers are much greater then those we know about whose ethical worldview is ajar.

            There is certainly no end to disgruntled voices, media stories, and court dates for erstwhile officials who, as the infamous New York Tammy Hall politician State Senator George Washington Plunkitt plainly put it in his day, “I seen my opportunities and I took ‘em.” Still, perhaps it is time to push beyond the “what’s in it for me” mindset and explore more fully the ethics of those public officials who successfully navigate the perilous waters of public office.

            Oh, I know this is not an easy task, especially when all to often we hear “clunk, clunk”—another one fell off the ladder.  Just this past month (August), the FBI arrested three suburban Miami mayors (Sweetwater, Homestead, and Miami Lakes) on corruption charges.  One ethics watchdog put it plainly: “Florida has become the corruption capital of America.”

            Let’s take a look at the career of one public official who learned how to stay on the ethical ladder—city manager LeRoy F. Harlow (1914-1995).  Over the span of his career, he served five communities in three states. He “walked the talk” with an integrity philosophy that went something like—do not fear others or losing your job, just do the right thing . . . and do not do favors. With a B.S. degree in industrial engineering from Iowa State University in 1938 and an M.S. degree in public administration from the University of Minnesota in 1943, LeRoy Harlow moved West to become the first city manager of Sweet Home, Oregon, population 3,300—a war-boom logging and lumbering town that had the local FBI reputation as the “toughest town in Oregon.”

His career start up i­n Sweet Home was followed by city manager jobs in—Albert Lea, Minnesota, Fargo, North Dakota, Richfield, Minnesota, and Daytona Beach, Florida, in 1952 where Harlow describes the climate as beautiful but the “political climate” as “anything but beautiful.” In 1954, he departed Daytona Beach to work as a consultant and advisor from Connecticut to California for another twenty years. Upon his departure from Daytona Beach, the local newspaper described Harlow as “a dedicated man and believes every citizen is entitled to equal treatment and service from their City employees. He performs his duties without fear and without favor.”

LeRoy F. Harlow understood that public service is an honorable profession. He knew that in his role as a city manager, he had a fiduciary responsibility to not only do things right but to do the “right” thing. His motivation and integrity served him well for building a reputation for honesty and a career with many accomplishments.

Sources: LeRoy Harlow, Without Fear or Favor (1977).  Nick Madigan, “Arrests of 3 Mayors Underscore Florida’s Reputation for Public Corruption,” New York Times, 2 September 2013, A9.

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