Dunavant Symposium Examines Public Service

By Bill Dries
Originally appeared in the Memphis Daily News on March 22, 2013

Saying there should be “good government” and there must be “ethical government” is easy.

Defining what those terms mean can be difficult especially for non-elected public administrators.

A new symposium connected to the annual Bobby Dunavant Public Service Awards aims to open a discussion about the issues of public service in practice.

The Bobby Dunavant Public Servant Symposium is Wednesday, March 27, from 8:30 a.m. to 11 a.m. at the University of Memphis Fogelman College of Business.

Like the annual Dunavant Public Service Awards, The Daily News, the University of Memphis and the Rotary Club of Memphis East sponsor the symposium.

“Broadly it’s about public ethics in practice,” said David Cox, executive assistant to University of Memphis President Dr. Shirley Raines and a professor of urban administration, politics and community building.

The session will feature remarks by attorney Mike Cody as well as Dr. Joy Clay, who teaches public ethics in public administration graduate program.

Cody is a member of Burch, Porter & Johnson PLLC. He is a former local Democratic Party chairman, Memphis City Council member, U.S. attorney for the Western District of Tennessee and Tennessee attorney general.

In 1992, Cody co-authored with Richardson R. Lynn “Honest Government, An Ethics Guide for Public Service.”

“It will be just an overview of ethics from the standpoint of not only people that are in positions like city council and legislative bodies but also people from the private sector who have to work with them or people in the agencies,” said Cody, who oversaw a wave of public corruption prosecutions during his tenure as U.S. attorney in the 1970s. “You could be in the assessor’s office and you can run into a buzz saw if you don’t know what you are doing with some close calls on ethics issues.”

A rewriting of ethics laws and regulations at the local and state levels often follows a corruption investigation like the Tennessee Waltz FBI sting aimed at state legislators in 2005. And the rewrites and re-examinations usually come with some discussion about whether new laws or rules can, by themselves, prevent corruption.

“Anytime you have an ethics investigation like Rocky Top,” Cody said citing a 1980s state corruption probe, “everybody runs in and starts changing the legislation and all. Pretty soon, people are smart enough to figure out where the edges of that are.”

In addition to remarks by Cody and Clay, the symposium will also feature more than 20 public administrators from Memphis and Shelby County governments as well as the six suburban towns and cities for an interactive session on improving the image of public officials in the Memphis community.

“There are instances where people have difficulty in even realizing that there’s a difference between my private interest and my responsibility as a public official,” Cox said. “It is trying to do a better job of just building the local understanding of public ethics.”

The Dunavant awards, which go annually to one elected and one non-elected official, marked their 10th anniversary this year. Memphis City Council member Jim Strickland and Shelby County Jury Commissioner Clyde “Kit” Carson were the 2013 award recipients.

The symposium and the awards are named for the late Probate Court Clerk Bobby Dunavant. The Dunavant family and the Rotary Club established the awards to call attention to good government practices as the Tennessee Waltz corruption investigation and its aftermath were making headlines.

“In politics today, it is too often dominated by the loudest voices in our community who tend to oversimplify complicated problems and difficult issues,” Brad Martin said last month in his keynote speech at the awards.

Martin is chairman of RBM Venture Co. and retired chairman and CEO of Saks Inc. He is also a former Tennessee legislator.

“Too often emotions associated with a single topic become not just the basis for who we might elect, but whether one’s political opponent or adversary is treated with civility or even decency,” Martin added. “I don’t think that’s what we want. I don’t think that’s what we ought to expect. And it certainly is not producing the results in government that we deserve.” 

You can access the original article on the Memphis Daily News site here.