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Time To Hold Elected Officials To Higher Standard

Dean Pagani

April 06, 2009

Though he faces trial on three counts of bribery, Hartford Mayor Eddie Perez goes on doing his job. Few have called for him to step down. City government seems to be functioning as normal. The residents of the city donít seem to care. In February a small crowd gathered at the Municipal Building, not to demand Perezís resignation, but to pray with him.It is a strange dance, but we are used to it. You would think in a state that has seen more than 10 years of high-level public corruption cases, sending nearly a dozen local and state officials to prison, we would have lost all tolerance for unethical behavior in public office. Instead the pattern has had a numbing effect. We recognize the rhythm and we do nothing to disrupt it. From first accusation to prison, we are content to let the process play out ó innocent until proven guilty.

Faith in the justice system is not what is behind the lack of outrage. Low expectations are. The residents of the city are not up in arms, because they expect nothing from government. Theyíve gotten used to it being run by a few power brokers. They donít expect it to be responsive to them. They expect it to be exclusive ó as in ó you are either in, or you are looking in. You have power, or you donít.

While politicians are quick to pass judgment on others, they are slow to pass premature judgment on their colleagues. Mayors, legislators and governors routinely call for investigation, resignation and retribution for those who run afoul of public opinion. In some cases, they promise to pursue their definition of justice even after a defendant has been acquitted by a jury of his peers, or served a full prison sentence. Extending the benefit of the doubt to any politician accused of wrong-doing ó on the other hand ó is one of the few issues that gains universal bi-partisan support.

No one in high office has called on Mayor Perez to step down; including any of the three major candidates running for the Democratic nomination for governor. This amounts to a failure of leadership, because it is a failure to set high standards.

For you and me, the standard is, and ought to be; innocent until proven guilty. Those elected to public office however, should be required to operate under two standards. As citizens, they are entitled to confront their accusers in a court of law and to be judged by a jury. As citizens given the special trust of public office, they should be required to conduct themselves in a manner that ensures their behavior will never be called into question. They must be judged by a higher standard, because they have assumed a higher level of civic responsibility.

When an elected chief executive is accused of a crime, the normal functioning of the government he is in charge of comes to a halt. Relationships are strained. Other political leaders, community and business leaders are not sure whether, or how to continue their interactions with the accused. All resources available are directed toward the defense and away from the general public the official took an oath to serve. Once an accusation is formalized, through an arrest or indictment, the ability to serve faithfully has been removed.

If those elected to public office understood that any formal charge would result in a complete loss of political support, there would be fewer cases of alleged corruption. Allowing accused politicians to hide behind the legal principles of a criminal trial sets the standard too low.

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Business Journal. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Business Journal Archives at http://www.hartfordbusiness.com/archives.php.
| Last update: September 25, 2012 |
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