Saturday, March 06, 2021

Schlomach: the high duty of elected officials and ways they fall short


The High Duty of Elected Officials and Ways They Fall Short
By Byron Schlomach

With a legislative session starting, it’s worth considering - What is the central, over-arching duty of an elected official? The Oklahoma Constitution’s oath of office requires Oklahoma public officials swear to “support, obey, and defend” the constitutions of the nation and the state, that the official will not take bribes, and will discharge duties as best he or she can.

Every individual acting in a governmental capacity in Oklahoma must act in the best interest of the people of the state as a whole. This high duty, executed as a public trust, is best characterized as a fiduciary duty wherein one puts the people’s interest above one’s own, preserving good faith and trust, with a duty to act in the people’s best interest.

Fiduciaries have the power and obligation to act in a person’s best interest and are held to high and strict standards of honesty, diligence, and responsibility. They must be conscientious, loyal, faithful, disinterested and unbiased. They must be free of deceit, conflict of interest, self-dealing, concealment, bribery, fraud and corruption. Too many elected officials fall short in many subtle ways. For example, elected officials probably aren’t doing their fiduciary duty if:

  • they back a measure just because their favorite lobbyist asked them to.
  • they propose a measure mainly because of their own personal concerns.
  • they trade their vote on one measure to secure someone else’s vote on a different measure in an act of pure horse-trading.
  • they support a measure because it might benefit their constituents at everyone else’s expense.
  • they support a measure for no reason other than an important campaign contributor asked for it.
  • they think a compromise on principle in one area allows them to stay in office and do good things elsewhere.
  • their head is turned by a celebrity, billionaire, or other important person, like a Speaker, President Pro Tem, or Governor, purely to gain these people’s good graces.
  • they support a measure because it’s popular without reliable evidence that good things will occur.
  • they don’t make a good-faith effort to obtain the best information about a measure or action under consideration from individuals with objective expertise.
  • they propose and vote on measures according to what is most likely to launch them into a lucrative career.

Doing the right thing often means doing the hard thing. Fulfilling one’s fiduciary duty can be boring, doing focused, deliberative, purposeful work that too often goes unrecognized, and taking the time to exercise adequate oversight of bureaucracy. It’s tough work, but it’s what elected officials signed up to do. They need to do it. The rest of us need to appreciate it.

Byron Schlomach is 1889 Institute’s director and can be reached at: bschlomach@1889institute.org.

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