Ethics: Training sessions are invaluable to local government

West Virginia Ethics Commission personnel conduct training sessions for public officials periodically. Special sessions on ethics laws in general and on the Open Meetings Act are being held this month — including one here in Parkersburg last week.

One reaction to such educational programs may be that common sense would tell most public officials the difference between right and wrong, legal and unlawful. In many cases, that certainly is true.

But the overwhelming majority of local government officials in our state are amateurs. Many have never held public office before, and they have questions about gray areas in the law. For example, if a school board president calls board members to ask how they feel about an issue, is that an illegal meeting? Sometimes, it could be.

Or, how about the example given by Theresa Kirk, staff attorney for the West Virginia Ethics Commission?

“You may not use your office for your own financial gain or that for another,” she said. “We know that we are working with taxpayer funds and those funds should not be used to pad our pockets.”

Obviously, right? But what, then, about a state employee’s use of a work computer or office resources to help on a side business they might start after work hours?

Kirk explained “That may have been fine when they worked in the private sector. … It is nice to remind them that they are subject to the West Virginia Ethics Act and the equipment is only to be used for agency purposes.”

The Ethics Commission’s training sessions are invaluable, then. Anyone in local government ought to make use of them. Doing so is good insurance.