The headlines are jarring: “No evidence to support any violation of PA Ethics Act by Kennett Township Manager Eden Ratliff ”. What township celebrates the fact that its current manager did not break any laws? A township whose previous manager had just been convicted of embezzling $3.2M.
Kennett needs employees to do far more than not violate ethics laws: it needs employees whose integrity is beyond question. It needs employees who are always honest, open, tolerant of differences, and ready to be accountable. To ensure that, Kennett needs to establish clear standards of conduct, to ensure that expectations for employees are clear, and to fire employees whose behavior violates these standards.
There is a huge difference between someone who does not break the law and someone whose integrity is beyond question. For example, someone who lies is rarely charged with a crime, but honesty is the cornerstone of integrity. Lies will quickly destroy public trust. A plan based on lies will surely fail, sometimes at great cost. A supervisor will be driven crazy by an employee whose claims the supervisor must always double-check. An employee who lies and then tries to cover the lies up is toxic to an organization. So an employee who lies repeatedly should be immediately terminated…. even though no laws were broken.
Consider this question: Did Kennett Township Manager Eden Ratliff break Pennsylvania Ethics Laws when he failed to disclose that his wife Gabby had accepted a lucrative position with a major township vendor, made possible by a monopoly he negotiated months earlier, and then being immediately involved in a proposal to direct an unprecedented level of new funding to that vendor?
The review concluded that Ratliff had not broken any laws, because he did not have the power to vote on the decision to direct funding, because he apparently did not say anything at the meeting at which votes were taken, and because Gabby Ratliff’s first day of work (i.e., when she began to receive a “private pecuniary benefit”) was two days after one of the critical votes to direct new funding. Using these specific standards, Ratliff did not break any laws… but do Kennett Township Supervisors consider this behavior really acceptable? We hope not.
One problem is that standards of conduct are often much fuzzier than laws, which is why they must be clarified in writing to be truly effective. Consider the above example: Over a period of 6 weeks, Gabby Ratliff applied for a position with a major vendor, was interviewed, was offered a position, accepted the offer, and then began work. Over that same period of time, we expect that her husband was involved in budget discussions to establish whether more funding should be sought, contributed to the development of the proposal to direct new funding to the vendor, and participated actively in meetings at which votes were held to approve the funding.
So when should Ratliff have notified his supervisors of his wife’s actions and recused himself from all Fire/EMS discussions? At the very least, we think he should have disclosed this as soon as his wife had been offered the position. Given Ratliff’s role in negotiating the lucrative monopoly now enjoyed by the vendor, we think that he should have notified the supervisors and recused himself as soon as she knew she was being interviewed. But we recognize that there is room for discussion here, an instructive discussion that begins through the process of defining standards, and that, when properly designed, can begin to restore trust in public leaders and institutions. In this respect, the $100K review was a waste of money because it said absolutely nothing about the need for clear standards.
When township leaders fail to establish standards, employees often pay the price. Without clear guidance, employees will make unnecessary - and potentially costly - mistakes they might come to regret. Without a clear standard, they might find themselves out of job with no clear explanation. And here in Kennett, their behavior becomes the object of public scrutiny by residents desperate for standards three years after a former employee’s massive embezzlement was revealed. The responsibility for developing such standards falls squarely on Township leaders - the Township manager, and Township Supervisors. To be clear, they should get full credit for identifying and implementing gaps in accounting standards that made Lisa Moore’s massive embezzlement possible. But now $100k poorer, they have made no discernable progress towards any other standards.