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Santa Clara Infuses Ethics Into Campaigns


Rod Diridon Jr. was a founding member of both the Santa Clara Campaign Finance Reform Committee (chair) and the Ethics Ordinance Committee. He is a former two-term city council member and currently the city auditor and elected city clerk for the City of Santa Clara. He can be reached at rdiridon@ci.santa-clara.ca.us.


The City of Santa Clara won the Grand Prize in the Enhancing Public Trust, Ethics and Community Involvement category of the 2007 Helen Putnam Award for Excellence program. For more about the award program, visit www.cacities.org/helenputnam.


For many, “ethical government” is an oxymoron. At all levels of government, too many disappointments in promising candidates have made voters skeptical and cynical about the ability of government officials to achieve a high professional standard of ethics.

Government reform, ethics in politics and sunshine laws: Politicians and government officials have talked about these topics for years. The question has never been if these things are important, but rather how do we formulate policy around them. And most important, whose morals and ethics are we using as a basis for the discussion?

The City of Santa Clara has engaged formal “good government” initiatives for almost a decade. The city’s Campaign Finance Reform Act and Code of Ethics and Values set best practices and standards for what government could be at its finest.

Campaigning for Ethics

The first step toward internalizing ethical principles as part of the municipal culture was educating and training employees, board and commission members, the city council and candidates for office.

Next was the big step: to engage the public in a real and meaningful way. As much as city officials like to talk about ethics as a policy, the rubber hits the road when the public is engaged in the process and has access to more information. When the public holds government accountable, city officials and staff are more likely to proactively do the same.

At no time is the public’s attention more focused on government, in a potentially positive way, than during an election cycle. The public’s openness and awareness surrounding an election provides an opportunity to set an overall positive tenor for municipal government -- in a way that engages people and gives them a reason to be proud of their city.

To that end, in 2002 Santa Clara began focusing on ethics in campaigning. Candidates were asked to sign an ethics pledge and commit to voluntary campaign spending limits. A workshop for candidates and their supporters featured ethical tactics and the benefits of ethical campaign strategies, and sought to make candidates and their supporters more aware of and more cautious about what they would be willing to do to win.

The innovative Vote Ethics Campaign, originally piloted in 2004, was expanded in 2006 to help voters evaluate the ethics of candidates. The goal was to engage and inform voters on how to become more educated about candidates and politics, without ever telling them for whom or how to vote. No small task, it took a broad team to compose and implement the program, including members of the public, the city council, the city manager’s office, the city attorney’s office and the city clerk’s office.

Political Tactics Employed

Utilizing techniques traditionally used by political campaigns as well as additional avenues specifically available to the city, 2006 Vote Ethics offered voters the tools to reflect on best practices, incorporate their own ideology and judge candidates more effectively. Candidates were challenged to hold themselves and each other accountable to the same high standards.

The general messages focused on four core areas:

  1. How to more effectively research a candidate’s ideology;
  2. How to more effectively research a candidate’s fundraising;
  3. How to more effectively interpret direct mail; and
  4. The best practices outlined in the city’s Code of Ethics and Values.

2006 Vote Ethics included a number of elements normally seen in politics rather than government to engage Santa Clara’s 110,000 residents and 47,306 registered voters and teach them how to hold candidates more accountable. The city’s successful media program included:

  • Printed Outreach. The city sent messages to residents and voters through direct mail, utility bill inserts and a section included in the city’s quarterly newspaper for a total of more than 283,100 pieces of material.
  • Electronic Media. The campaign reached out to residents with four video news briefs produced in-house that were played 1,050 times, a website that received 4,678 hits, an electronic billboard message on Highway 101 that was shown 22,680 times and a pre-election day radio public service announcement that aired 15 times.
  • Community Outreach. Grassroots outreach for the program included a presence at community events and service club meetings that reached 730 people, training in campaign finance and ethics workshops for 91 people, and televised forums that reached both a broad cable audience and 325 people who attended in person.
  • Media Coverage. The San Jose Mercury News (circulation 253,947) covered the city’s Vote Ethics program in an article titled “Politicians Told to Play Nice, Santa Clara Advances Against Dirty Campaigns” (Nov. 3, 2006).

The 2006 Vote Ethics Program cost approximately $56,500 in non-programmed expenses, which is an investment of roughly 51 cents per resident. This did not include previously programmed printing and postage for the utility bill, city newspaper and other “leveraged” items.

The Numbers Reflect Success

Research shows that as a result of the Vote Ethics program, Santa Clara residents are more aware of the need for considering ethics when selecting a candidate, and the confidence of voters in municipal government is increasing.

Research was conducted twice to assess the community’s attitudes toward ethics in local government with statistically valid data. Faculty from the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics at Santa Clara University conducted the first benchmark survey. A professional research firm conducted parallel research after the 2006 election. Most of the original survey instrument was used in the second poll in order to have comparison statistics.

In pre- and post-polling, the number of residents who said they are very proud to live in the City of Santa Clara increased from 49 percent in early 2006 to 77 percent in late 2006, a 28 percent increase. Similarly, residents indicated an 18 percent increase in their ability to make Santa Clara a better place to live. And the number of residents who felt they had too little information to make informed voting choices decreased by 45 percent (see chart).

Key Findings  Benchmark research before 2006 election Follow-up research after 2006 election
Aware that the city encourages citizens to “Vote Ethics”  21% 54%
Aware that the city has a Code of Ethics and Values  38% 63%
Aware that the city provides training for political candidates on how to conduct ethical campaigns 9% 28%
Aware that the city has received state and national recognition for its ethics and values program 12% 30%
Number of residents who say they are very proud to live in the City of Santa Clara 49% 77%
Agree with statement “People like you can have a big impact on making the City of Santa Clara a better place to live.” 61% 79%
Number of residents who feel they have too little information for making informed voting choices 52% 7%

The research confirmed with quantifiable data that the Vote Ethics campaign educated the public and gave them more confidence in municipal government.

Conclusion

Of course, each community is different. There are no “one size fits all” solutions.  There are some universal truths; murder is bad and chocolate chip cookies are good. But, beyond this type of basic understanding, the situational nature of politics leads to very few absolutes.

If you are interested in developing a program like 2006 Vote Ethics, remember that the program’s formulation should be fluid to reflect the individual needs of your community. Shedding light on the process of governance, be it for an individual citizen or member of the press, is a healthy thing. And the inclusion of members of the public in these types of decisions is very important. What they say matters, and what they feel will be reflected in the community.

Whatever policies you create should be fair and unbiased for all of those affected. While you never, never, never should tell someone how or for whom to vote, you can provide the unbiased tools that allow them to become more educated voters.

At the end of the day, it’s important to acknowledge that whatever you do does not have to be perfect. But it does have to be fair. Voters are smart and will make the best choices if they are engaged in the process and offered the tools to succeed. And sometimes, just a discussion about ethics is all it takes to remind people to be at their best.

For more information about Vote Ethics, contact Carol McCarthy, deputy city manager, City Manager’s Office, Santa Clara; phone: (408) 615-2213; e-mail: cmccarthy@ci.santa-clara.ca.us.  



A Look at Some Key Messages

Santa Clara used a variety of key messages to reach voters and potential voters about the value of taking ethics into account when considering which candidate to support.

The city’s 2005 Annual Report/2006 City Calendar featured ethics as its theme, and was distributed in December 2005 to all residents and businesses to increase their familiarity with the eight values of the city’s Code of Ethics and Values: ethical, professional, service-oriented, fiscally responsible, organized, communicative, collaborative and progressive.

Four-page Vote Ethics tabloids were inserted in city newspapers in fall 2004 and fall 2006. Using the slogan “Ethics in government begins at the ballot box,” the tabloid articles explained how to:

  • Look closely at campaign mailings;
  • Demand a fair fight;
  • Locate financial disclosure information;
  • Evaluate the ethics of candidates; and
  • Register to vote.

Residents received three eye-catching 8 x 10-inch campaign postcards in the mail bearing the messages:

  • “What do you know about the candidates? Making an educated choice at the ballot box relies on solid information.”
  • “It takes more than wishes to run a campaign. Who is supporting the candidates?”
  • “When candidates battle it out, ethics can get scrambled.”

A televised public forum called “The Final Word” was held the night before Election Day to hold candidates accountable for their actions, particularly last-minute hit pieces or charges in the media.



2006 Vote Ethics Program Measures of Success

Increased Voter Engagement 

Voter registration increase:

  • + 1,620 (+ 3.8 percent)

Voter turnout increase:

  • + 3,631 (+ 6.5 percent) votes

Ethics and Campaign Finance Limit Pledges 

Code of Fair Campaign Practices Pledge signed by candidates:

  • 7 (100 percent)

Voluntary Campaign Expenditure Limit Pledge signed by candidates:

  • 7 (100 percent)

Candidate-Funded Last-Minute “Hit” Pieces:  0